Ever since Survivor contestant Richard Hatch went spearfishing in the buff during the show’s inaugural season in 2000, gratuitous nudity has become something of a staple of the reality TV genre. But now Discovery Channel, the network that gave the world Shark Week, is taking it a step further.
At its upfronts presentation last week—the annual event in which networks parade their upcoming programming before potential advertisers—Discovery revealed two new series featuring nudity-based plotlines. The first is Naked Castaway, debuting on April 14, in which survivalist Ed Stafford is left on Olorua, a deserted island near Fiji, for 60 days without clothes, food, or tools. The second, Naked and Afraid, debuting this summer, features in every episode a new pair of naked strangers, who must survive together in some exotic locale—from the Serengeti plains to the Borneo rainforest—for 21 days. Oh, and did we mention they’re naked?
It’s like the summer of 1998 all over again, when two asteroid movies (Deep Impact and Armageddon) came out within just months of each other. But this time, instead of asteroids, it’s naked people living in hostile environments. And both shows are produced by the same network, which means Discovery’s biggest competitor will be…. itself. Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School, thinks it’s a brilliant strategy. “Their marketing teams can do double duty for these shows,” he says. “It’ll save the Discovery Channel a lot of money and time.”
Nancy Daniels, Discovery Channel’s executive vice president of production and development, won’t say whether the network is trying to corner the market on nudist television. “Both shows came to us via very different routes,” she says, “and they both represent the ultimate in survival challenges. With the word ‘naked’ in the title, there is obvious immediate interest.” But it’s not just the suggestive titles that could potentially lure viewers. “Seeing other people naked is one of our basic needs and instincts,” says Galinsky. “They’re taking the reality show premise and stripping it down to the bare essentials, pun intended.”
Trend expert Jeremy Gutsche says Discovery is trying to distinguish itself in a crowded field. “One of the problems that all networks are facing right now is finding ways to attract younger viewers,” he says. “It’s a media-cluttered culture, and there are just too many options. Nude contestants is definitely a way to stand out.” Galinsky is even more optimistic, suggesting that Naked Castaway and Naked and Afraid could be a bold step forward for the entire reality TV genre. “I laud the producers for being so advanced and progressive,” he says, seemingly without sarcasm. “With this move, they could potentially overtake scripted television in terms of sophistication and imagination.”
Sophistication may not be the best word to describe the premiere of Naked and Afraid. Contestant Kellie Nightlinger, a former gold miner in Alaska, told New York’s Daily News about her less-than-conventional fishing method during the episode, which involved using her “ladyparts” as bait and catching fish between her legs. It remains to be seen if crotch fishing during prime time will appeal to a mainstream TV audience. “Some viewers may think it’s entertainingly shocking,” says Gutsche. “But for others, it’ll definitely cross a line.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)