‘Gotcha-in-a-good-way’ reality TV

Nikki shouldn’t have any trouble remembering the magical moment when Justin, her longtime boyfriend, popped the question. She was standing in front of a giant cascading fountain, a marching band and more than 800 singing and dancing strangers — and the intimate moment was captured on Fox’s reality series “Mobbed.”

“I’m the luckiest girl in the entire world,” the tall blond cried. Her answer kicked off an instant wedding, complete with frilly dress thrown over her clothes, right on the spot.

“Mobbed” is one of a number of hidden-camera, surprise-themed series headed to TV in which the sole purpose is to make something unexpectedly lovely happen for a person, couple or family and share their wide-eyed reaction with primetime audiences. Its warm and fuzzy themes contrast with many hidden-camera shows of the past, such as the filmed ambushes in “Cheaters” and “Scare Tactics,” and the cruel joke premise of “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.”

Some industry watchers think shows such as “Mobbed,” in the vein of “Undercover Boss,” “Secret Millionaire” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” could signal a kinder, gentler sensibility on the way for reality TV. (Even “American Idol,” where snarky Simon Cowell used to be a huge draw, has thrived with new kinder, gentler judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez in his place).


“Mobbed,” the brainchild of comedian Howie Mandel, did so well in the ratings earlier this year, with 10.8 million viewers, that Fox decided the next day to make it an eight-episode series. Each hour will star flash mobs that help deliver heartwarming messages in over-the-top, synchronized public fashion.

“This show is my standup act plus ‘Glee’ plus reality plus hidden camera on steroids,” Mandel, who’s also the host, said shortly after the March debut. “It’s got every emotion possible, from joy and exuberance to drama to awkwardness to thrills.”

No one’s suggesting that pranks and rug-pulling will disappear from the reality landscape — even the indefatigable Betty White has a hidden-camera project, “Off Their Rockers,” coming to NBC — but many new shows in this subgenre appear to be even softer than the classic “Candid Camera.” It just may be the start of the anti-"Punk’d” era.

Upcoming examples of “gotcha-in-a-good-way” shows include “Surprise Homecoming,” a TLC series with Billy Ray Cyrus that reunites military families. It’s the second such show, with Lifetime’s “Coming Home” already established as a hit on Sunday nights, premiering to 2.7 million viewers. Also on the horizon are HGTV summer shows where people’s homes and back yards are spontaneously remodeled or viewers are sent on spur-of-the-moment dream vacations.

And the mother of all feel-good reality shows, “Queen for a Day,” may return to U.S. TV after pulling in massive viewer numbers in a Spanish-language test run during the winter. The seminal ‘50s series will be modernized, but its core concept — lauding deserving, hard-working and down-on-their-luck women — will remain.

The shows fit with a prevailing mood in the country to be “more hopeful, to look at the brighter side,” said Jane Buckingham, president of Trendera, a consulting and trend forecasting company. “People are tired of all the negativity. They want to root for the good in life.”

Kathleen Finch, general manager at HGTV, said mean-spirited reality formats are “getting a little dusty.” After all, “there’s only so many ways you can watch people get embarrassed and mortified for the sake of a TV show.”

Her channel, not known for scheming or other nastiness in its docu-style shows, will give unsuspecting viewers on-the-spot home makeovers on “HGTV’d,” arriving at the door in a tricked-out 18-wheeler with designers, furniture and other supplies in tow. (Winners will be selected, but not notified, from online submissions). And in “Room Crashers,” producers will pick remodel candidates from random customers at antiques shops, paint stores and home improvement chains.


There’s also “House Hunters on Vacation,” which will send people winging off to exotic vacation spots, and “My Yard Goes Disney,” where, in one just-taped episode, a rabid Disney fan didn’t know he was getting a Mickey Mouse-shaped swimming pool until it was built. All the shows launch early next month.

“You want to see people win, and that’s why audiences like these shows,” Finch said. “That may be you someday.”

Tom Forman, a producer who helped launch “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” created “Coming Home” after watching emotional YouTube clips of servicemen and women returning from war to surprise their loved ones. The home videos have attracted millions of online viewers.

“It was the most extraordinary footage I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was so visceral and wonderful. I thought, ‘How can I make a TV show about that?’ It’s just real people overwhelmed with joy.”


Producers and networks may have returned to the hidden-camera concept because there seems to be little truth left in most reality programming. Forman said audiences have become “appropriately savvy to TV tricks” and can sense when scenes have been manipulated, even in shows that purport to be real.

They’re also seeing friends, relatives and communities taking part in the surprises, adding another uplifting layer to the shows. The Internet and social media have changed the definition of “friend” and “community,” Buckingham said, with total strangers increasingly connecting for a common cause.

The result? Hundreds of volunteers from as far away as Canada busted a move in the courtyard of the Americana in Glendale to amp up Justin’s marriage proposal to Nikki on “Mobbed.” And residents of a small town near Ft. Campbell, Ky., set up a citywide treasure hunt that led three kids to their soldier dad on “Coming Home.”

“I think this speaks to where we are as a country right now and what people want to watch, especially with their families,” Forman said. “You like to see people’s faces on the best day of their lives.”