Playing for Keeps

 Part IV in a series. Read Parts III and III.

By Eric Hoyt

The most imaginative adaptations of “Wipeout” have come from the former Soviet bloc. The producers of “Cruel Intentions,” a co-production of Endemol Argentina and Red Square for Russia’s Channel One, built Aztec-themed façades around all the familiar obstacles. The competitors on this Indiana Jones-like set are attractive Russian celebrities dressed in matching wetsuits. The focus on celebrities rather than laypeople speaks to the producers’ assumptions about who audiences want to see onscreen.

The Anglo versions of “Wipeout” encourage viewer identification with ordinary contestants. The classic game show question—“What will you use the money for if you win?”—invites the viewer to root for ordinary participants in the show. In other cultures, the idea of watching ordinary people compete on TV is boring. That everyday folk would publicly humiliate themselves in pursuit of money seems all the more pathetic. Following the assumption that Russian audiences would rather watch celebrities, and prefer a display of physical prowess to goofy humiliation, the producers of “Cruel Intentions” reimagined the “Wipeout” format to emphasize these qualities. Nevertheless, even here, contestants wipe out in the end—no one, not even the Russians, can escape the wrath of the Big Balls, the giant red orbs that contestants must pinball between.

"Wipeout" in Russia is "Cruel Intentions"

The most thorough and creative reimagining comes from the Ukraine. In January and February 2010, the Buenos Aires obstacle courses played host to “The Battle of Ukrainian Cities” [BUM]. Instead of featuring a new batch of 20 contestants each episode, BUM developed a series of tournament-style match-ups between teams representing Ukraine’s 26 provinces and municipalities. Each five-person team consisted of two men, two women and a celebrity team captain—pop star Ruslana and boxing champions Vyacheslav Uzelkov and Dmitrij Nikulin, for instance.

BUM debuted a far more competitive and serious take to the obstacle course than other versions of “Wipeout.” Humor and competition coexist in the Anglo, Spanish and Arabic versions of “Wipeout,” but the laughter and falls are emphasized over athletic competition. BUM reverses these priorities. The teams are there to represent their hometowns, not look like goofballs. Any moments of humor occur only to ease the tension.

BUM employs visual and sound aesthetics that further emphasize the competition and suspense. Consider the way the show appropriates the Sweeper—a rotating arm that contestants on lily pad platforms must leap over, lest they be knocked into the water. Like all of the brightly colored, foam-padded props in “Wipeout,” the Sweeper generally takes on a cartoonish quality, accentuated by Boing! Pow! sound effects added for the show in postproduction. But not here. Instead, the slow-mo Sweeper replays feel like something out of a war movie. Instead of cuing cartoonish sounds, the replays use the effect of a helicopter blade revolving in slow-motion, like the beginning of “Apocalypse Now.”

The show’s title also emphasizes a national consciousness that’s a part of the shared Ukranian experience. It’s the battle of Ukrainian cities, not Lithuanian or Georgian cities. In the majority of “Wipeout” adaptations, we feel a bond to our nation’s version of the show not because of any hard sell about the virtues of America, Spain, or Australia, but because the contestants look and talk like us. The commentators crack cheesy jokes laced with our culture’s pop references, and we get it. But BUM diverges. The national and regional bonds are not invisible here, but explicit. BUM encourages viewers to identify with their representative athletes and encourages the competitors to approach their missions with a seriousness of purpose missing from other “Wipeouts,” where only a cash prize is at stake. In the time leading up to the competition, boxer Vyacheslav Uzelkov, captain for the small-tomid-sized province of the Vinnytsia, put his team on an intense training regimen. “We run cross-country races regularly, jump, lift weights and improve reaction-response time and so on,” Uzelkov told the website “There are no professional athletes on our team; however, physically everyone is well-trained.” The preparation paid off—Vinnytsia dominated all the way to the finals.

Ukraine competes not simply among its own cities, but against the world. On its website, the Ukrainian television network Inter boasts about the nation’s superior performance in the “Wipeout” format: “In this program world record in the qualification round is broken. One Ukrainian competitor shows the best time in the history of ‘Wipeout’… One more player demonstrates a new way of passing the Big Donuts. Never before have people run by the rubber rings. And our fellow-townsman does that easily.”

And yet, despite the regional pride natives of Vinnytsia may feel about their team, and despite Ukraine’s innovation in dunking the Big Donuts, the obstacle course, production crews, even the Big Donuts are in Buenos Aires.

BUM's deadly sweeper arm.


Stay Tuned

For years, unscripted TV has represented the low-cost alternative to heavily unionized, scripted productions. Local producers could create their own format adaptations because they were, by and large, inexpensive and would attract audiences who were turned off by foreign subtitles or accents. But now, the recession has intensified pressures to cut costs even further in an industry already known for its bargain basement budgets. The sweeper arm of globalization and outsourcing is approaching unscripted television fast. Adaptive local cultures can jump over it, but jobs and domestic infrastructures will get knocked into the pool. As Ewa Mularczyk put it, “Of course I would like to have ‘Wipeout’ shot in Poland, and have Polish engineers build the obstacles and highlight the Polish countryside. But ultimately, you see, it’s all about money.”

Mularczyk is right. Financial imperatives will accelerate the production hub model of television formatting and production. Ultimately, though, the global significance of reality TV cannot be reduced to economics, politics, or any other single determinant. Mularczyk was drawn to “Big Brother” for emotional reasons, switched career tracks, moved to the United States. Sure, there were economic factors involved (the same opportunities didn’t exist for her in Poland), but initially, it was an emotional response to this globally formatted show that made her change her life.

For producers, television formats are recipes. But for audiences, formats can become full of meaning that producers can’t control or anticipate. Reality television helps us see that the Global Canon is not a collection of high art that emerges from singular creators, conveying universal meanings. Instead, the Global Canon is the threads of shared culture, produced and reproduced continually, reflecting common emotions and economic realities while allowing a diversity of representations. Like the “Big Brother” house or “Wipeout” course, the structures are vacant until ambitious contestants and curious viewers arrive. The “Big Brother” format inspired public protests in Bahrain, media debates in numerous other countries and at least one transnational career change. Endemol’s provocative formats broke down barriers between public and private space, but only through our participation have they so thoroughly touched both.

Read Parts III and III.

Eric Hoyt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Critical Studies Division of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

photo by nchambaud

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