Matt Roush, David Hill and Ananda Lewis courtesy TV Guide Network
As a professional TV critic, I've been judging reality shows for years, especially since Survivor first exploded on the scene seven summers ago. But becoming a judge on a reality show? Didn't see that one coming.

Here's how it happened: This spring I was invited to participate in a new series being produced by the Magical Elves company ( Project Runway, Top Chef) for the newly rechristened TV Guide Network. America's Next Producer would be designed on the classic model of Runway and Chef, subjecting an eclectic group of contestants to a fast-paced series of grueling challenges to test their mettle in the competitive field of TV production.

My initial reaction: reluctance. "I'm a TV critic, and now I'm playing one on TV?" How surreal. But figuring that TV Guide was more or less going to be a character in this show, it seemed an appropriate fit to be the magazine's representative. Why not? It's certainly a new experience.

So off I fly from New York to Los Angeles at the start of May - yes, the production schedule means I'll be divorced from my DVRs during most of the all-important May sweeps, and I'll be observing the network upfronts from the opposite coast. No one said becoming on-air "talent" would be easy.

The first sign that my life has temporarily changed: When I arrive at a Studio City soundstage to embark on a couple of days of promotional duties (interviews, photo shoots), there's a parking space with my name taped to an orange traffic cone. In all the years of driving onto studio lots, that's a first. I must actually exist.

And here's where things get really strange. I suddenly realize I'm in the eye of a reality-TV hurricane. Alongside signs for America's Next Producer are signs pointing to America's Got Talent, which is holding auditions in the same building. (I glimpse Jerry Springer, but we've been told not to approach. OK by me. I do not lay eyes on The Hoff.) The Next Producer staff is keeping us judges away from the contestants - we're not supposed to make contact until the eliminations begin - but the hallway outside the room where I'm cooling my heels (hiding out) is littered with oddly dressed eccentrics who no doubt are harboring some secret talent for Talent. Then I get in an elevator alongside a guy with a clipboard labeled " On the Lot." Is everyone in this town working on a reality show? It sure looks that way.

And later on, as I'm posing for production stills (they actually let me climb onto the TV tower at one point!) with our show's gorgeous host, Ananda Lewis, and my gregarious fellow judge, David Hill of Fox Sports, I notice that one of the guys fussing over our hair and clothes is none other than Dr. Boogie! (For non-reality watchers, he was one of the more colorful contestants on Bravo's haircutting competition, Shear Genius, which was still airing in early May.)

When reality worlds collide, indeed! Boogie is as chatty and charming in person as on TV. He's complimentary to me, so I tell him I'm a big fan. Which I am. (I was sorry later when he was eliminated.) But when people ask Dr. Boogie what's going to happen next on his show, he clams up. I empathize, having also signed a confidentiality agreement that felt as long and detailed as my condo closing papers.

The surreality of this reality adventure continues as I do several interviews, talking about a show that I haven't yet seen and that hasn't even really started yet. One of my interrogators: longtime TV Guide colleague and friend Mary Murphy (another bizarre first, to be on the other side of her questions). She, like many others, asks if I was planning on being the next Simon Cowell. I joke that if lucky, I'd be the next Nina Garcia (with a far less flashy wardrobe).

Seriously, though, I'm approaching my role as a judge as I do my job as a critic. To be fair and an enthusiastic champion of good work, but also to not be afraid to call 'em as I see 'em. I figure the contestants will have to sell themselves as well as whatever they produce, and I'm looking forward to being in the middle of the pitch.

My anticipation grows as I leave Studio City and head back across town to check out the small studio stage where the show's eliminations will be shot. Line producer Gary Snoonian tells me this unassuming stage is where George Reeves' Superman series was once filmed (cool!), and legend says some of the classic Our Gang shorts may have taken place here as well (cooler!). I definitely get an Old Hollywood vibe as I tour the upstairs production offices and spot the notches in the walls through which film used to be projected.

As I leave the stage, I see crew members acting as extras, sitting in the chairs behind the judging table where we'll be deciding the fate of the contestants the next day. I actually get a little chill.

Let the games begin. (Final note: I'll be weighing in after each episode through the run of the show, offering a judges'-eye-view perspective on what happened in our search for America's next producer. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as we did.)