Reality producer Matt Kunitz has asked contestants to eat foul bugs (on Fear Factor) and jump on big red balls (see Wipeout). But that's child's play compared to what he's put people through on ABC's recent new entry, 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show.
101 Ways to Leave a Game Show, which completes its six-episode summer run tonight, represents the latest evolution in Kunitz's and Endemol USA's action-stunt-comedy reality brand. Kunitz and the production company are also behind Wipeout and just landed a new season of Fear Factor — after a five-year hiatus on NBC. "At their heart and soul they're big, giant stunt shows," Kunitz says. "But we make sure they come across different."
When TV Guide Magazine visited 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show earlier this summer, twelve stories above Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, three contestants hovered at the edge of an empty building's roof. The players were harnessed to a crane and struggling to figure out the answer to a trivia question. That's because one of them was about to be ejected from the game — literally.
Taking a break from the action, Kunitz elaborated on some of the reality TV lessons he's learned over the years:
No matter how successful you are as a reality producer, every show is a learning experience. Kunitz first made it big as a producer on MTV's The Real World. When the network needed an extra episode (during the show's Seattle season), Kunitz came up with the idea of bringing in the cast of Road Rules and setting up a series of games. "It was my first shot at doing one of these big, crazy stunt shows," he says. "Looking back, it's sort of funny now, as nothing worked. It was the worst production." But that idea eventually led to the successful Real World/Road Rules Challenge spin-off series.
Good ideas can spring from bad ones. NBC lucked into Fear Factor — a bona fide hit for the network — after it canceled plans to run another reality show, Chains of Love (which eventually wound up on UPN). The network still owed producer Endemol nine episodes of something, and that's when Kunitz and fellow executive producer David Hurwitz combed through the Endemol catalog and found the Dutch series Now or Neverland. "I said, I can't imagine you'd ever want to put this on NBC, and we wouldn't want to do it unless you let us be crazy," Kunitz says. "We turned it into Fear Factor, Americanized it and made it bigger and more outrageous. It came out with a big splash and became great watercooler TV." But there was something else unique about Fear Factor: Families were watching the show together. "I realized there was something here, that creating a show families can watch together is a rare thing."
Big balls = big ratings. When Fear Factor ended its run, Kunitz and fellow producer Scott Larsen decided to come up with another stunt series that might rely even more on slapstick, and as a result, be more family-friendly. Along with Endemol, they came up with Wipeout. The show's obstacle course centers on those signature red balls, which quickly became iconic. "Scott was walking in Toys 'R' Us when he saw a bunch of balls and started wondering if they made giant ones. We found giant soccer balls and called the company up. We asked, 'Is it possible for someone to jump on your ball?' They could. Now, when people think of Wipeout, they think of giant balls," Kunitz says.
Extroverts win. For Kunitz, the best reality show contestants are rarely the prettiest. "In 30 seconds they have to pop on the screen," he says. "Sometimes it's the bald guy. If you're bald and have high energy, you're on my show. I want them to stick out and be memorable."
Keep pushing the envelope. Kunitz says the kind of stunts seen on 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show couldn't have been done a few years ago. "But what I think is fun about 101 Ways is how far the stunt world has come, and technically how far we're able to take things." Kunitz has seen viewers question on Twitter how they're not killing people on 101 Ways. "It's totally smoke and mirrors," he says. "It looks crazy and outrageous. The idea that I can put someone on the back of a pickup and send it 30 miles per hour off a 350-foot cliff, and then have a helicopter pluck them out at the last moment, is crazy. But I can do it because of the people I surround myself with. You need to surround yourself with people smarter than you."
Kunitz and Hurwitz resume production on Fear Factor in September, while Wipeout continues through the summer. ABC hasn't yet announced a second-season order for 101 Ways.