Three years ago, when Swedish TV producer Anna Brakenhielm went to Hollywood to sell the format for "Expedition Robinson," she had trouble making people understand how it was different from "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
"They were both European hit entertainment shows, and that's all anybody could remember, so they got them confused," she recalls.
Today, American viewers have no difficulty telling the difference. "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "Survivor" - as "Expedition Robinson" was renamed - are two of the most popular shows in America.
But while US audiences are still warming to "reality TV," it may be on its way out in Europe, say TV producers and executives, as viewers suffer from saturation.
"People think this sort of program is new, but it isn't," says Ms. Brakenhielm. The managing director of the Stockholm-based production company Strix, she is known in the business as "queen of docu-soaps."
British television stations were running "fly on the wall" type programs in the early 1990s, following supermarket staff or cruise-line passengers about their daily business.
These were prototypes for "Big Brother," another European reality show that has done well in America.
European production companies and TV stations pioneered this sort of format because they are less risk-averse than their US counterparts, suggests Thomas Notermans, an executive with Endemol, the Dutch company that first made "Big Brother."
"American program directors don't dare to make too many changes," he says. "Losing one or two points of market share is a disaster for them," whereas European stations, in smaller markets, feel freer to take risks.
"In Europe, if you dare to experiment and it fails, you lose but you don't get your head chopped off," Mr. Notermans says.
That gave European production companies like his, along with other market leaders such as Pearson Television in London and Strix, the freedom to try out reality shows that US networks snapped up once they were proven successes.
But the transatlantic trip has shown intriguing differences between American and European audiences.
"Big Brother," for example, was not as big a success for CBS as network executives had hoped, although a second series is planned. Notermans puts this down partly to poor casting - if you are following unscripted conversations day after day, you want them to be interesting - but also to American prudery.
He recalled one incident, where a participant showed his bare backside to the camera, which producers digitally camouflaged with a black spot.
"That is going too far," complains Notermans. "In America, the rules are so strict that it takes something away from the show."
Americans and Europeans "have different ways of looking at morality," agrees Brakenhielm, who had trouble selling her latest worldwide hit reality show, "The Bar," in America.
In "The Bar," two teams run two bars in a restaurant, organizing events and competing for customers, while viewers choose each week which contestants stay and which go. Viewers can go and drink at the bars or follow events live on the Internet via webcams.
Potential US clients for the show "are a bit scared of the bar atmosphere, of showing people drinking beer on TV," explains Brakenhielm.
"In Europe we can show nudity or drunk people on television, but we would not do a show like 'Temptation Island,' " says Brakenhielm. On the Fox TV show, committed couples are taken to a tropical island, separated, and tempted to be unfaithful.
"That is not nice, it is a mean setup, and it stinks," Brakenhielm says.
Purists do not regard programs such as "Survivor" or "Temptation Island" as reality TV, since they have organized activities and are edited for maximum excitement. The entirely unscripted "Big Brother" is much more hit-and-miss.
"You don't know what will happen each evening," says Notermans. "It could be exciting, or it could be a bit boring, like a football match."
In fact, almost anything can be turned into reality TV if the cameras have access. Strix recently made a reality series about the Miss Sweden element of the Miss Universe beauty pageant, following contestants about all day, allowing viewers to get to know them better, and to choose the finalists over a five-week series.
But some people in the business are afraid they may be giving viewers too much of a good thing. In Germany, for example, the reality-TV rage is so strong that every channel runs at least two such series all the time, and some are beginning to flop.
"There are too many of these shows, they are not produced in a skillful way, so now people have decided that reality shows don't work anymore," worries Brakenhielm. "Next year, maybe, nobody will want reality shows anymore."
Some 'reality,' coming to a TV near you
To some extent, what gets made in Europe, and how well British, Dutch, and Swedish audiences like it, decides what American viewers will be watching a year later. Here's a preview of what's to come:
*"Chains of Love," an extreme dating show, has been a smash hit in Holland and Germany. The UPN network is developing an American version.
A young woman is given photos and descriptions of a number of young men. The four she chooses are then chained to her on a Monday morning - two to her left wrist, two to her right.
After 24 hours of this collective intimacy (all recorded on-camera), she ditches one. After another day, she ditches a second. By Friday, when the show airs, one guy is left as the winner and viewers can watch highlights of the week's fun. The game can also be played by one man and four women.
*"24 Hours," in which two celebrities who have never met are closeted in a camera-infested apartment for 24 hours. They are also given "a dilemma to solve," in the words of Anna Brakenhielm, whose Swedish company came up with this format. "There is only one bed, for example, or they have to feed a snake with live mice." Whether American celebrities will be prepared to subject themselves to this sort of ordeal is unclear.
*"TV Hairdresser." Yes, Dutch television viewers (who are veteran connoisseurs of "reality TV") are currently agog in front of their screens, listening in on the conversations that ordinary men and women have with their hairdressers. Not much action, but a good deal of gossip.
*"Forgive and Forget," an "emo-tainment" show that Fox is developing from a Dutch original, in which ordinary people confess on television to past misdeeds for which they now feel sorry. They are brought face to face with the relative, friend, or neighbor whom they wronged, to beg forgiveness. It is not always forthcoming.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society