Despite the popularity of the recent Dancing With The Stars programme, television critics and social commentators are roundly condemning the new reality show by Christine Julian’s TakeDown productions, Marathon For The Mediocre.
Styled after the American dance marathon competitions of the Depression Era, the show is a cross between reality television, a dance show and Survivor. The couple which stays in its feet the longest wins the grand prize of $5,000.
Contestants are drawn from all walks of life, no professional dancers or celebrities are allowed, and all are carefully vetted by TakeDown for their public appeal: the first 200 are mostly the unemployed and pensioners who Julian says will have “high emotional acceptance, especially as the competition goes into its second and third weeks when some of the favourites will collapse through sheer exhaustion.
“By that time the viewing public will have chosen their favourites and they will be cheering them on as they sag, their feet swell and they start to look pretty bad.
"This is real reality television and the human drama of watching ordinary people suffer for a handful of dollars is going to be riveting viewing.
“It will also drag in advertisers, couples can be sponsored off to the highest bidder, and you can almost guarantee that some people will become extremely ill, possibly even die, during the course of the event.
“We learned our lesson with that very serious Lana Coc-Kroft incident, and that is something we definitely want to repeat. Ratings went through the roof for that one.”
Contestants must remain on their feet dancing for each of the three-hour sessions at the end of which is a 10 minute rest period. For the major meal of the day contestants are permitted to sit, but the four other meals in the 24-hour period must be taken while standing.
“This is like a Telethon for the tragic,” says media critic Jim Blazer, “and it is astonishing to think we have returned to the days when people, particularly the underprivileged, are trotted out for the amusement of the masses.
“At least gladiators in ancient Rome had some training, this is just an endurance course for people who are so desperate they will do anything for their mortgage money.”
However MC Jason Gunn says he thinks the fun element of the competition has been overlooked.
“No one is forcing people to come along here and dance until they faint and collapse, but inspired by Tim Shadbolt, Norm Hewitt and others on Dancing With The Stars, many people just want to get out and have some dancing fun, and maybe walk away -- or most likely crawl away -- with the grand prize.
“It’s just a bit of a laugh, and we have doctors on duty 24 hours a day to take care of those who collapse with exhaustion, heart attacks, that Meningococcal disease and so on.
"It’s just fun television, and I get to act and do some funny voices a little bit which is going to be good for my career.”
Dance marathons in the Thirties often ran for months as the impoverished and desperate saw an opportunity for stardom and wealth, however Julian says the Marathon For The Mediocre will not be allowed to drag on for so long.
“Absolutely not. We know the concentration span of the New Zealand public -- look at how quickly they forgot last year’s New Zealand Idol, and more recently the fabulous Dancing With The Stars phenomenon which was replaced by rugby fever.
“So we are going to speed up the elimination process by having regular sprints around the dancefloor during which some will inevitably collapse due to stress and fatigue, and we will also eliminate the last five couples. That is going to be must-watch television as they elbow and fight and claw their way to the front.
“It is our hope that by the end of the first month we will be down to the final couples, and then the pressure will be on for them to perform or pass out.”
After the controversy in the latter days of Dancing With The Stars about how much or little money various charities were getting out of the event Julian says she has sidestepped the issue completely.
“We’ve watched the Fight For Life people also struggle with this one and so we are taking out the whole public vote aspect. We can guarantee the public that not a single cent will be going to any charity at all, that all profits and proceeds from this very exciting show will be retained by TakeDown Productions which has worked very long hours to bring you the best in local television entertainment.
“And of course because this features ordinary New Zealanders doing extraordinary things, right up until they drop, it is entirely with the parameters of Charter television.
“It’s a win-win situation for all of us at TakeDown.”
*** Sydney Pollack’s 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? -- starring Jane Fonda, Gig Young, Red Buttons and Bruce Dern -- is available on midprice DVD. If you liked Dancing With The Stars it’s worth a look.