Everything you wanted to know about Opposite Worlds

The latest real-time, Big Brother-ish series to be attempted by a TV network is Syfy’s Opposite Worlds, which is based on Chile’s Mundos Opuestos. Coincidentally, the last time the Olympics were airing was the last time another TV network attempted the same thing: ABC’s Glass House.

I talked to Opposite Worlds executive producer JD Roth last week about how those shows influenced his series. He was candid about everything from the show’s physical location (New Orleans) to the philosophical ideas behind the show’s structure (and why that takes precedent over what we might expect from a similar series). He and I talked Thursday afternoon, the same time the team challenge that aired last night was being filmed; it resulted in one team’s victory after three consecutive losses.

A request: Please don’t copy and paste this into your message board, or I will ask the show’s producers to make you clean the past’s cave toilet holes.

The influence of Big Brother and Glass House. When we talked about other shows that have aired in real time and used viewer votes to affect the game, Roth indirectly referred to Big Brother‘s have/have not votes. “Honestly, I’ve never seen a show where this element of social media actually felt like it worked. It always felt like an afterthought to me, it always felt something that didn’t matter,” he said. “I was very conscious of trying to figure out a format in which America really could affect something other than should they eat peanut butter all week. I thought that was an important part of the game. What better way to get story in real time for contestants on a show than for them to realize America thinks they are the most hated. Does that change your behavior?” He added, “That, I haven’t seen before. I’ve never seen something where you have a true effect on how someone acts in the game.”

I pointed out that Glass House did just that: The contestants learned how popular they were, with the two least-popular people being removed from the game and then voted out by viewers.

He said, “I never made the connection on that show, and I think because they were trying to do so many things at the same time that maybe I just didn’t pick up on that. I think what we’re trying to do is, do a lot less but do it right.” As a result, Opposite Worlds intentionally limits viewer participation. “There’s so many options that you just get lost and you decide to not get involved. I think when you directly give someone one piece of business … it gives the viewer something singular to focus on. … Give the viewer too many things, it becomes like work.”

Why there are no live feeds. That explains why there are no feeds or online components. Roth said that “those are all add-ons” that should come only after viewers have gotten used to the format, such as in subsequent seasons, and said that “we will add little elements on top of what we already have” in the future. Roth added, “I think Glass House got lost in that a bit, too. You can watch all of the stuff after the show and that will decide something in the next show even though no one saw it except the people that went online to see it. … It makes the show difficult to watch. You want to make the experience for someone to watch as easy as possible and still make them feel included.”

How the Twitter popularity index works. “We gather that information all week, but clearly the volume” comes during the broadcasts, Roth told me. Syfy and producers worked with Georgetown University’s Kalev H. Leetaru (whose actual title is “Yahoo! Fellow in Residence of International Values, Communications Technology & the Global Internet at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service”) to develop a system to measure popularity. Leetaru has discussed the methodology in detail, but as Twitter noted, it is “is based on measurements of the volume of Tweets about a given contestant, as well as an assessment of the Tweets’ sentiment.”

How setting the show in New Orleans backfired. Syfy wanted the show to film in a warm location, which is why the sets were constructed near New Orleans. But the unexpected cold fronts left the contestants shivering and bundled in heavy jackets instead of in bathing suits. Roth told me, “I was hoping we’d make the show in LA, and that’s how I pitched it to the network. They said, ‘No, we want people to be warm and want them to dress and be in a jacuzzi and have it be nice weather.’ So we ended up picking New Orleans. Who would have known that it was 80 degrees in LA while it was 35 in New Orleans? We couldn’t predict that, but it did play into the reality, and again, the truth is stranger than fiction. In the past, it was freezing cold, and without a fire, it would not have gone well that night.” He called the past’s sleeping arrangement “great drama”–and that continued this week, as they created floor beds in the future side just to replicate what they’d had while living on the past side.

Why there are live shows (and why results shows are partly to blame for their weakness). The first three live shows, with the exception of the challenges, were pretty boring–a lot of interviews that lacked insight. Roth said their structure, which changed last week when the live show moved to 8 p.m., was in part due to results show fatigue: “When a host throws to a package, [viewers are] trained to think it’s either a results show or a retread of information they’ve already seen. Yet it’s not: it’s brand-new material. It’s tough for the viewer to understand that, because it’s dressed up and it looks exactly like something they’ve seen in the past. And those shows are typically not as highly related.”

“The idea of going live was: Can you do a live challenge, in the elements, whether it rains or its cold, and let it play out in real time and let the viewer appreciate that. Nowadays, when the only thing that really rates is live sporting events, all the networks are trying to figure out, ‘How do you get a viewer to show up?’ The word ‘live’ helps the viewer realize, ‘Oh man, I better check this out and not DVR it and watch it seven days later,’” Roth said. “I don’t know how many other reality shows have done a live challenge to the scale of the challenges that we’re doing. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off.” (Indeed: Big Brother has been proving that for years and years.)

The challenges and injuries. The first challenge, which resulted in a contestant breaking a leg and leaving the game, was a “complete freak accident,” Roth said. “That challenge had been tested over and over and over, and of course there was a rule that you can’t just launch yourself at someone so that both of you go over. That rule was ignored and the consequences were horrible.” As to other injuries, such as the cut one cast member got on his eye after being hit by a tomato thrown by a beast of a man, he said, “The injury factor is very normal. … You can’t protect from everything, obviously.”

The past and future vs. have and have nots. The division between the two teams quickly became less about living in the past or future than being haves and have-nots, which is more well-tread ground in reality TV. I asked Roth if producers considered having advantages and disadvantages to each side, and added that the imbalance seemed to give one side a distinct advantage. Roth focused on that part of the question: “The past wasn’t easy. It just wasn’t,” he said. “I don’t want to make it easy for the people in the past. But yet, they’re bonding in the way the people in the future aren’t. Their friendships will last way longer, because they don’t have the distractions.”

He said that, “You need these moments of disconnection to really have sincere moments of connection. And that’s an important part of the show. Yeah, it’s a reality show. Yeah, it’s entertainment, yeah it’s a game. But for me, and the shows I like to make, it’s always about something more. Can you put that question out there that answers something in life?”

What the show says about humanity. That “something more” is, for Roth, about “that constant battle between the haves and have nots in life in general is interesting. It’s sort of how we all live as a population,” he said. “Everyone always wants a look on the inside,” so the show provides “a great opportunity to explore a real social experiment of trying to figure it out.”

“When I watched, for the first time, these people enter these two worlds, instantly on the future side it was a party, it was a social event. … And on the other side, they never even introduced themselves,” he said. “That part of us, that DNA that we all carry around with us, that put us in survival mode, actually kicked in, on its own, organically.”

Later, Roth told me, “I kind of feel like, the further we get into the future, the class structure is going to become part of society, and the more the classes are going to separate themselves and protect themselves from each other. You’re going to end up with a lot more of the haves and the have-nots. Who’s going to be happier? In my experience, anyway, less has always been more.”

The difference between the South American version and the Syfy show. The major difference in emphasis is a result of Roth’s interest in those ideas and the social dynamics over the game itself: “Obviously, there’s a lot more episodes of it, I think there’s a more game play there. I was a little more interested in the science experiment of it all than I was the straight game play,” he said.

The imbalance between the teams. Because one team won the first three challenges, there was a pretty major imbalance. “My feeling in storytelling has always been the same: run toward the story you have instead of the story you want,” Roth said. “It’s very hard to fight those instincts as a producer, and there’s a lot of people in this town that produce differently than I do. They would instantly do a team switch and they would force those moments to happen … in my view of that, that’s the wrong thing to do.”

Roth is clearly passionate about keeping the game organic and real: “In a real experiment, you don’t change things just because it suits you. You allow the experiment to happen, good or bad, because in the end, truth is stranger than fiction. And what will happen will be a lot more interesting. That struggle, that desperation to win–is that going to bring them to a win? And if it does, how sweet is that going to be? And how much will it give an opportunity for a viewer to actually leap off their couch, which very rarely you feel the need to do, and get excited about something? Those real emotions that you look for on shows, and those real moments that you look for, a lot of producers feel like you can manufacture those. I’m not one of those. I really believe that the way to get those moments is to stick with the show that you said you were going to produce, and don’t let the fear of it not going the way you want it to go, change that.”

“As a producer, and also as a human being, I don’t want to be presumptuous enough to think that I know better than what is going to actually happen for real. I think you’re going to be surprised, and the feelings you have now, I feel like, as a viewer, they’re good feelings. The fact that the people from the future are starting to come apart at the seams, arguing with each other, just shows me again, it confirms they’ve never connected. They can’t have real communication with each other … Yet the people in the past can have real conversations with each other and speak honestly and openly. From my standpoint, I love the story that we have, and I’m not afraid of what’s going to happen,” he said.

Because there’s a team that is essentially underdogs, he said he was anxiously awaiting word about the result of the challenge. “I’m excited, I’m on the edge of my seat. Very typically, since I’ve been doing this for a hundred years, I’m not. I’m jaded.” So, he added, “that shows me that I’m vested, and if I’m invested, I guarantee you the viewer’s invested.”

What happens all week, and whether or not the cast gets to leave. While Glass House contestants spent the weekends at a hotel, in part to get sunlight and fresh air, the Opposite Worlds cast is “living there seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Roth said. “We shoot Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Monday and Tuesday, we shoot very little.” But all that time, “They’re just existing,” he said. Those in the past are “don’t take showers, they don’t get access to a nice bathroom. We try not to break that bubble of reality as much as we can. We try to keep them in that world because that’s what the experiment’s about.”

Producing a show in real-time. Roth noted that instead of a typical six weeks, they’re editing Tuesdays episodes in just 48 hours. “It’s a monumental task, these shows. The lack of success on some shows or the huge success for others. Whether it’s our show or Glass House or Big Brother, any of them, it is a herculean task to get that show to air every week so the viewer has something to watch. It would be hard for a viewer to appreciate how much work goes in to just getting that show at the top of the hour to hit play so they can watch it.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.