But this U.S. pop culture sensation isn't American at all. The trend started in Europe with a standard formula: Put real people in unreal situations, have them compete for huge prizes, then let the games begin. TV may never be the same.
Blame it on 30-year-old Ben Silverman, the television agent who brokered the deal for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and represented the original producer of Survivor. Five years ago Silverman went to London to find new forms of entertainment and returned with reality TV. His agency, William Morris, represents most of the reality programs headed for American television. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports on the powers behind reality TV.
One of Silverman's newest projects, Chains of Love, involves a group of men chained to a woman. The five people are literally bound together for a week in a search for the perfect couple.
John DeMol, who came up with the idea, is a Dutchman who has produced more reality TV shows than anyone on the planet. UPN will soon be airing Chains of Love. He says shackled is not the right word to describe their bonds. Picture soft and gentle chains that don't hurt.
Until recently ideas like that got DeMol thrown out of the best studios in Hollywood. No one thought reality shows were ready for prime time. In fact, last summer's blockbuster Survivor languished for years in Hollywood trash cans.
Just listen to one network executive's first reaction to it.
"You've got to be kidding. Sixteen people, a desert island, CBS? Who's going to watch that on our network?" says Leslie Moonves, head of television for CBS. And if it hadn't been for the persistence of one of his programmers, Survivor migh not have survived.
"He kept coming back, and he kept coming back again and again and again, until finally he got me to at least agree to meet the producer. And that started the ball rolling," Moonves recalls.
And with Survivor rolling over everything in its path, U.S. TV networks are clammering for any idea based on real people. Nearly all of those ideas are coming from Europe. British producer Charlie Parsons dreamed up Survivor.
"Dramas are great," Parsons says. "Everyone likes dramas. But suddenly, people thought, 'Well, maybe actually real people could be more interesting.' You know, maybe real life is more interesting than fiction. I think there's an additional element as well. Real people are cheaper than actors."
And they may be willing to do anything to get on TV. In Jailbreak, which aired last fall in Britain and has been bought by ABC, real people are put behind bars with the challenge of busting out.
At one point, 10 inmates over a three-week period of time, were attempting to escape from a state-of-the-art jail. For their troubles, they would win a share of a total prize of a quarter of a million pounds.
Jailbreak is a human struggle without a script, and that, reality producers say, is why reality shows have seized the American imagination.
"I really do believe that actually Survivor is a moral celebration of the human spirit, because you really see the good and the bad in everybody," Parsons says. "And actually, you have to sort of triumph through it. It's part game show, part soap opera and part human drama. And that's what makes it unique. And that's actually why we couldn't sell it in the beginning."
Since Survivor, that's changed. European reality programs are aiming for an enormous jackpot that can make producers rich and the networks even richer. Millionaire, for example, increased ABC's revenue by $500 million in just one year.
Selling reality TV is now a multinational industry. Shows like Big Brother, which confines 10 strangers in a house and votes them out one by one is now in 22 countries. CBS spnt $20 million to buy and produce it in the United States. That kind of potential has led to endless spinoffs. Holland's The Bus is sort of Big Brother on wheels; while Sweden's The Bar resembles Big Brother on booze.
So television has become like McDonald's, selling a format in Japan, Venezuela, the United States and all over the world.
Silverman agrees. "You are making a burger, but you know, in the case of India it's got tofu in it because they don't eat cows."
Nor do they eat rats in Sweden. But that was the first country that bought Survivor in 1995. It's now being pitched everywhere, and Charlie Parsons sold the format rights for $30 million, though he says it's not all his.
The marketplace is competing for the next Survivor, the next reality hit.
"People are just tossing off ideas on the back of envelopes and saying, 'You know, I've got a great idea,'" Parsons says. "Let's do...Execution Survivor."
Parsons was joking, but somebody else was serious.
"I got a pitch the other day called Executioners, about filming and broadcasting a contest among death row inmates for their potential survival," Silverman says.
Suzanne Daniels, the president of entertainment for the WB network, is presented a lot of ideas like that. One she recently passed on involved a football field. "They dressed each member in a suit that made him look like the Michelin tire man," very padded, she says.
"And they started running, and these horribly scary looking, you know, German shepherds that were out for blood ran after them and jumped on them and bit with all their might," she says. "And the people were terrified."
Is there a line that DeMol doesn't want to cross?
"Absolutely," he says. "It's a very difficult question because it is practically impossible to give an answer on all the possible situations you can put people in."
For example, one of the scenarios of DeMol's Booby Trap involves committing an unsuspecting victim to a lunatic asylum. Booby Trap is a revenge show. Think of someone you want to get even with, a practical joker in the office, for example, and Booby Trap will lure him into a sadistic hidden camera plot. The show has been bought by NBC under the title Sweet Revenge.
It could be called Candid Camera's evil twin. In one show, a maintenance man is asked to defuse a time bomb that he thinks is real. He's in danger of being blown to bits, he thinks.
In another episode the man was invited to a hunting party. One of the other men in the hunting party is murdered, he thinks. So he believes he's witnessed a murder.
Why do people want to watch this stuff?
"Simply because this is funny," says DeMol.
Why gamble on an idea like Sweet Revenge? Because the stakes are huge. Millionaire propelle ABC from third place to first in one season. Survivor became a sensation by bringing in an audience CBS never had before.
"By trying something like Survivor, people said, 'Gee, this isn't my grandmother's CBS.'" Moonves says. "All of a sudden there were younger people coming to our network. For the first time, my teen-aged kids came home and said, 'Dad, my friends are talking about a show on CBS.'"
And this may be just the beginning. With a TV writers' strike looking likely this spring, networks are looking for anything that doesn't need a script. The agent who brought reality to American shores has an endless list of titles straight from the cocktail napkins of Europe.
Among the offerings: Silverman's Big Diet, Bump in the Night, Life on Mars, Jailbreak and Bootcamp. "I love this stuff," Silverman declares.