By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Wannabes queued up to conceive a baby with a stranger live on air for a £100,000 prize. The show was a spoof, but what does it say about reality TV?
It started as a challenge - to come up with the ultimate tasteless reality TV show and test the boundaries of the format.
But in just eight weeks, "Let's Make a Baby" came dangerously close to becoming a real show.
Hundreds of reality TV hopefuls jammed the phone lines when the show advertised for contestants, and TV channels from all over the world offered vast sums of money to buy the rights to the series.
If Let's Make a Baby were really made, would you...
Be willing to take part 8.06%
Not take part, but be willing to watch 22.36%
Not be willing even to watch 69.59%
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
"Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we would get that far with such little effort," says the programme's producer and director, Helen Sage.
The undercover experiment was for BBC Three's current affairs series Mischief. The programme's makers came up with the most "tasteless and morally dubious" idea they could, and a fake production company to sell it.
Let's Make a Baby would centre around contestants - all strangers - living in a "fertility house", with the least attractive being voted out each week. The remaining two couples would then have a race to conceive a child and win £100,000 each.
The idea was first pitched to focus groups, all of which agreed it was morally questionable but said they would watch it. "It's completely offensive," said one group member. "Would I watch it? Yes."
Comedian Danny Robins was bought in to sell the show
More than 200 people - including a gay man who was up for the challenge of trying to have sex with a female - applied to be a contestant. They were not told the show was a fake until after the auditions.
Real reality stars also bought into the idea of the show. Makosi Musambasi and Craig Coates from Big Brother 6 agreed to host it.
Finally, a party was put on at Europe's biggest TV sales fair in Cannes to pitch the fake idea to TV channels from all over the world and test their reaction. Disturbingly, it created a real buzz and several offers came in.
"As a TV producer, I was really interested in the question of how low my industry would go in its bid to attract viewers and attention, the answer is very low indeed," says Ms Sage.
Professor David Wilson, who walked out as a consultant on Big Brother for ethical reasons, says the premise of Let's Make a Baby is morally repugnant and all about cheapening life, but he is not surprised that it attracted so much interest.
"Reality TV is not only reinventing the freak show, it's about bedlam," he says. "It's the TV equivalent of slowing down to get a better look at the accident on the other side of the motorway. It's about getting a view of other people's misery.
Kinga Karolczak is verbally attacked in the street
"Those who take part are considered odd or bizarre for wanting to do so, but they are merely products of a society that now holds fame above anything else. All cultural reference points are now rooted in being a celebrity, and not attached to having an intrinsic skill."
He says there should be an independent body to regulate reality TV, and is also critical of the psychologists and other academics who take part in the shows and "endorse the programmes with a fig leaf of credibility".
One person accused of taking reality TV to new lows is Big Brother 6 contestant, Kinga Karolczak. Her drunken antics with an empty wine bottle prompted a frenzy of complaints to media regulator Ofcom. Hoping to use the show to boost her singing career, she now feels a victim of reality TV.
"One thing that was stupidly edited has ruined my life," she says.
But the prize of large audiences and the chance of a big reward take over people's moral compass, says Alan Hayling, head of documentaries at the BBC.
"Very intelligent people are operating in a moral vacuum," he says. "The moral of the tale of Let's Make a Baby is, sadly, that it is terribly, terribly easy, over only eight weeks, to show how low reality might go."
So what is the future of reality TV? Will the public lose its appetite for it, will programme makers get a conscience? Neither, and things could get far more extreme, says Professor Wilson.
Makosi was a cardiac nurse before Big Brother
"The limits of this type of TV are limitless. The other year there was a huge web audience for a film on the net of hostages being beheaded. It is about how deep and depraved our imaginations can go."
And as for Let's Make a Baby? A Dutch television company is currently making a reality TV show called I want your baby, not your love. In it, men compete to be the one to donate their sperm to a single woman who wants a baby but not a boyfriend. Not quite the same, but close enough.
Let's Make a Baby will be broadcast on Thursday 26 January at 2230 GMT on BBC Three.
Whilst I'm up for Helen Sage testing the boundaries of human decency, I'm utterly shocked at her surprise!
I mean, TV covers a huge spectrum of subjects, and formats, but why on earth would she not suspect people would be up for this?
when I'm surethat she knows that people are up for torture, murder, rape, genocide etc..
maybe a bit strong, but I bet a wedge of money, if there was a reailty show called "murder a paedo" or even "shoot a granny" then people would apply!
we live in a sick world, and sicker things happen than sadsacks who want to be famous.
I look forawrd to seeing her show though.
luke keen, Dunstable, Beds
The fact that the idea of such a programme, regardless of whether its a spoof or not, can even be entertained just goes to show what a immoral, mindless and quite frankly unintelligent society we live in.
It's incredible and quite pathetic the depths people will stoop to just for a bit of fame - and reality tv just helps this further.
I can proudly say I haven't ever even seen 5 minutes of any series of big brother and never will, and this latest spin on reality tv just goes to show how brainless society has become - the fact people now hold fame above something as beautiful and miraculous as the creation of a new life i think is even more disturbing as it is outrageous.
Nick Lawrence, Stockport
Not surprised. If people weren't like that, rags like the Sun and News of the World, all the other tabloids, and 'lads' magazines like Nuts or Front would simply have no market.
And nobody would watch Big Brother, either.
Incidentally - I don't read those, and I don't watch BB either! Boring old physicist, me...
Mark BAiley, Didcot, UK
The description of "car crash telly" is accurate. I would go further and say that a programme about how low people will go to get on TV itself becomes car crash telly. Slightly disturbing, yet you still watch it.
Is the show going to be slighty disturbing? I expect it will, watching people apply to be on a freak show. Will I watch it? Probably.
MIke , Exeter
Personally, I refuse to watch any of the reality programs. They are little better than a 20th century version of the Colesseum games in ancient Rome. It is difficult to decide who are the saddest people, the competitors or the viewers.
Steve Miller, Hayling Island, UK
There is nothing real about reality TV. Real people doing real things are called documentaries.
Neil Rajah, London
Watching people on TV stoop to new levels of immorality serves the same purpose as watching Eastenders - it makes us feel good within ourselves.
Damn, I knew I shouldn't have had the snip. That's me out as a contestant!
simon mallett, UK Maidstone
I think it's a pity that programmes such as The X Factor, Hell's Kitchen, Strictly Come Dancing, etc are often grouped together under the "reality TV" umbrella with programmes like BB. Sure, they may not be to everyone's taste, but they ARE about people -whether members of the public or celebrities - trying to learn a new skill or improve an existing talent. BB and its ilk are just shows about sad people trying to be as outrageously shocking as they can in order to win fame and fortune, whilst not actually doing anything worthwhile. This latest reality TV scam again shows the depths to which these people would sink. I do watch the former; I don't watch the latter.
I agree with Neil Rajah. Can we stop calling this junk TV "reality"? If you want reality, watch the news or volunteer for aid work oversees.
Jerry, Basingstoke, UK
I really do not understand all the fuss and outrage about this TV show idea. If any two consenting adults want to make a baby, that is their right, and if they want to do it on TV, why do we want to stop them? All this BS about morality and depravity stinks like hypocrisy to me. I think a more likely reason why everyone is so upset is because they would secretly fancy themeselves doing that, but have not the nerve, so they point the finger to make themselves feel better about their secret little jealousy.
Stephen John Mayne, Johannesburg South Africa
Reality TV is the lowest form of pornography
david, Hong Kong
'Attractive' in what sense? Yet again the idea seems to be the 'good looking ones' are kept in to have the baby. Surely the voting should be on who best shows they're up for being parents. It just goes emphasises the exploitive, money spinning nature of such shows probably. There's nothing real about the likes of BB. Put people on camera- esp with a fat financial reward - and they'll behave far from 'real'. More so, celebrities (well that's what they think they are).
Ian, Midlands, uk
The contestants in these shows are not victims; they crave all the attention they receive be it good or bad, should we sympathise? The audience are the ones who fuel the fire so I guess its up to us all to decide out own moral fate; I don't fancy our chances! I personally have better things to do than watching these poor people make bigger fools of themselves.
J Mayers, Notts, UK
No-one should be surprised at all....Look how many people buy the red-top tabloids, devoid of news, focussed only on tits, gossip, and sport. The uneducated of this nation will plumb every depth that media moguls can take them to, for profit. We're in danger of becoming a nation of trailer-trash chav's unless we can start to set new standards and get better examples from the so-called "leaders" of our nation. Well done Helen Sage for the heads-up!
will boardman, Melton Mowbray
Does this not just show how low we have sunk to? - not only are people willing to take part, but also to watch.
Bob , London
I'm not convinced this idea was ultimate tasteless show. The real US show where illegal immigrants competed for a first prize said to be a green card (but which in reality was only free legal advice on the immigration process) surpasses this for me.
Ian, Edinburgh, Scotland
I am afraid things weren't quite as presented in this article. After the visit to Cannes and despite all the interest and "buzz", were there any concrete and firm offers from TV stations? According to the programme makers, no. So yes, reality tv is tasteless, potential contestants don't have much between the ears, but in the end the idea didn't sell.
I thought this programme was great. It was interesting to see just how far the boundaries could be pushed with an idea which, initially, seemed completely unmarketable on moral grounds. It demonstrated that with the right sales pitch TV bosses will jump at anything that might rake in some cash. I expecially liked the hypocrisy of one TV executive featured on the programme who was utterly disgusted with the concept - but when asked to present it (with the promise she wouldn't have to conceive!) she said yes. But on another note, I fail to see how the likes of Nick Lawrence (see letter above) can criticise reality television when he admits "I can proudly say I haven't ever even seen 5 minutes of any series of big brother and never will". Like many of Big Brother's so-called critics, he is effectively admitting there is no basis for his presumptions - how can there be, without having tuned in? You can't criticise a book without opening the cover any more than you can criticise a TV programme without switching on the box.
This sort of show is "car crash telly" for snobs. They watch it to get the same vicarious thrill that so-called reality TV offers, but try to kid themselves that they are laughing at the genre, rather than with it.
Simon , Bruxelles, Belgium
The phrase Lets make a Baby is used all the time by men and women when their are in love or lust for sex after meeting each other in a bar or club, and of course the prettist is one is choosen. So instead of rewarding people for their loose behavior, just take the cameras to a club and do a documentry, how much more reality can one get. Oh yeah you do not get large sums of money for this method. I guess when money is involved reailty shows are nothing more than fantasy shows.
rhonda phillips, london
What a way to increase teenage (or under) pregnancies! To those experiencing the onset of puberty to show what to do with the available apparatus is surely unwise!
Donald Sarfas, Falkirk
Kinga Karolczak said "One thing that was stupidly edited has ruined my life". Stupidly edited?! Are you nuts?! Maybe "one stupid thing I did in front of millions of people" might be more realistic? I'm surprised people still think reality shows are going to make them famous. How many Big Brother winners (or even contestants) can you name? The only people I can think of are the really dumb ones and I'm not about to risk a libel case by putting their names in writing! Who wants to be famous for being stupid? Virtual anonymity is just fine with me.
Gary Rogers, Basingstoke, UK
Wow! If this is the way that television is going then i am really glad i dont watch it!
sam, worcester, uk
Doesn't anyone remember the Pilot Show with Lapdance Island, or for that matter Space Cadets. People will do anything to get on these shows, thinking it is a passport to fame (law of diminishing returns applies), they are then royally abused by the programme makers and abandoned.
What a depraved world we live in. It's just one step further towards Pornographic TV. The seed has now been planted and it will grow - thanks to Helen Sage. It's so sad to know people have such low self-worth that they are prepared to sell their bodies for £100,000, but what would the media do without them?
Marjorie Teale, London, England
"One thing that was stupidly edited has ruined my life," [Kinga] says.
Oh please! Stupidly edited? She really is stupid if she thinks it comes down to that. Reality TV is horrific. I don't think anyone who has ever been a part of it has any right to complain about how they were represented.
Society hasn't changed, moral boundaries have. Media sensationalism being responsible for the erosion.
James Wood, Shrewsbury, England
This innane experiment has cost a lot of money to prove what should have been obvious. This is a waste of money that we give to the BBC in the form of TV licence fees. In my view those who initiated this experiment are just as morally bankrupt as those who took the bait. I predict that sooner or later some warped individuals somewhere will feel emboldened by the "success" of this experiment and they will implement the ideas which the experiment holders are now so hypocritically denouncing.
Sakib Ahmad, Horsham, UK
Financially it makes sense for the contestants. If they like that kind of 'entertainment' and they are planning to have a baby anyway then why not give it a good start in life with £100K. The problem with it actually getting made is the poor child who would be known by the press as the one conceived on TV. That would really make you feel loved by your parents!
Two sorts of people would be glued to the program, those that soak up that kind of rubbish TV anyway and those that are just waiting to be outraged so that they can complain to Ofcom.
The problem with this experiment is that someone will probably go ahead and do something like this now that they've realised there's a (global) market for it. This kind of thing gives you great faith in society!
Thats not fair on the child!!!!
It's absolutely disgusting to think of people going on TV to do this sort of thing! Have we no sense of morality any more? In my opinion, it just goes to show the lengths that some people will go to just to get on TV nowadays. It makes my stomach churn!
LH, Tyne & Wear, UK
Come to think of it why does BBCNews cover Big Brother as a news item?
Liz Whitelam, Hong Kong
I stopped watching television years ago, which removed a nasty pile of unreal stuff from my life and opened up a lot of quality time. 'Reality' they call it? No, the real world, the one outside the BB house, is the one being trashed by global overheating, by insane addiction to the Black Stuff, by a throwaway mentality...
Nobilangelo Ceramalus, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Bah, if somebody proposed such a genious idea for a reality show in my land it would go prime time!
Uncle Sam, U.S.
Isnt it about time that both the newspapers, magazines and television companies got a grip and started to produce quality programmes and editorials. They fuel the publics desire for this garbage and then are the very first to hang the 'winners' or participants. It is also time that the British public actually got a life rather than watching the cheap garbage sensationalism of someone elses.
Wwendy , Nuneaton
It shows that forced celebrity is valued higher than integrity, morality and intelligence. That in itself shows that this country is generally lacking integrity, morality and intelligence and it appears to be getting worse.
Entertainment is entertainment and whatever type of fiction you chose to fill your free time shouldn't matter to other people unless someone is being harmed. It all depends on your personal taste. So, I'm not sure what the fuss is all about, I'd rather people watch this show than read the bible or the koran.
Marc D., San Francisco, CA
This just shows two things: (1) How much society has sunken to a new low in morality and have no concern about what their children watch on television. Then wonder why they children act like they do. (2) That television industry is all about the money no matter how much or in what way they degrade humnas that have no moarls or self esteem.
Dennis, Spartanburg, SC
i agree with the producer i can't believe they have sunk this low.But i can't say i'd be suprised if it's popular!
i mean it's reality tv apparently you never hit rock bottom! i would never watch this show.I bet it will appeal to alot of other people though.
babu, alice springs australia
I don't know about Lets Make a Baby, but your idea for a show built around gawking at motorway accidents is pure media genius! Perhaps Ms Sage could invent a way to combine both concepts?
Curt Carpenter, Dallas,Tx USA
Love the faux moral outrage. There is nothing morally or aesthetically questionable whatsoever about the idea of a show such as this. "Let's Make A Baby" deserves to be produced. In the context of the corporatist society, human beings are useful for only two things: serving as consumers, or serving as product. "Let's Make A Baby" is the logical extension of a capitalist-dictated social ethos which mandates that human work, human intellect, human emotions, and human beings are simply commodities to be traded and consumed.
"Let's Make A Baby" will be a wonderful prequel to "Let's Slaughter The Neighbors."
David Livingstone, Detroit, MI USA
I think Alan Hayling hit the nail on the head: "The prize of large audiences and the chance of a big reward take over people's moral compass." In abandoning its Judeo-Christian worldview, society has effectively removed its magnetic north. In the absence of moral absolutes, pragmatism reigns. Our society is reaping what it has sowed.
Adrian Prowse, Wellington, New Zealand
"Reality TV"? Surely if we called it "artificiality TV" it would (a) be more truthful and (b) attract fewer viewers.
Ken Strong, Hornchurch. Essex, UK
I rarely watch Tv, let alone reality Tv, and I wouldn't watch this one either, but it's simulation makes a very unsurprising point. We already know there are plenty of strangers who'll copulate without being acquainted, and never see each other again, let alone those who'll do it for an audience, or a little money. It's no stretch to discover those who don't mind being a surrogate father. It doesn't take a simulation to learn about plenty of mothers who want a baby, and the attention that is offered. The simulation of this show wakes people up to know how immoral and unspiritual society has become, if there are any left nieve enough not to know. Some people make sensationalism a way of life.
Dallas Talley, The Dalles Oregon U.S.A.
I really don't understand what all the fuss is about. Viewers whose lives are so sad and empty as to want to watch (or god forbid appear on) this kind of exhibitionist rubbish deserve what they get.
Daryl, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sadly, new attempts at voyeuristic and shock TV always become boring, conventional and outdated eventually, so the emergence of a show like this is probably in reality only years at way at best (and I understand Japan has a genuine reality show where girls can lose thier virginity on TV, so maybe it is already passe). I have never thought that freedom of expression and popular culture were bad for society, quite the opposite, but we seem to be celebrating vacuous selfishness a little too often these days, and this will without a doubt negatively influence the way sociey thinks and behaves. It's all like some tacky Paul Verhoeven prophecy........
Mark, Brighton, UK
It was a great idea! The conception footage would have sold well. I think it's time the BBC moved into commercial pornography anyway - it might help reduce the licence fee!
Adge Cutler, Shepton Mallet, Somerset
What is the 'civilised' world coming to?
Why is anybody surprised by how popular the idea was? The way television is going has been clear for years! If you don't believe me just remember The Running Man was a critique of the TV culture that already existed in the late 80s and whilst things aren't that extreme (yet) I fear that we're going to make the premiss of that film look tame very soon.
It's a sad comment on our times Hollywood films (in general) are more intelligent than the average TV programme.
Francisco, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
There are plenty of sites on the internet where the entire spectrum of live sex is available to voyeurs and exhibitionists alike. While the internet offers very little protection against the corruption of minors, television offers none at all. Governments must draw the line and make it clear to the private sector that explicit live sex on television is a no go area.
Roger Vella Bonavita, Perth Western Australia
Reality TV will reach a point so low that there is nowhere else to go but up.
I thought that point had come several years ago with 'Back to Reality', where past contestants in reality shows appeared together on another reality show. However I was completely wrong. The descent has continued since then.
Alan Taylor, Newbury, United Kingdom
You have pointed out something that I totally agree with. I turned my TV OFF when the OJ Simpson trial started in this country. I don't miss the trash for a minute. Life is too short to be swamped with the garbage that is spewed forth, and this "almost show" points out what trash television has become. Folks.. hit the OFF button.
Jay, Burlington, USA
No one forced Kinga to do what she did. It's the 6th series of Big Brother, she knows how it operates and what goes on. Her own fault really.
Midas G-F, Oxford, UK
How can human society in the 21st. Century let itself be driven by such primitive absurdities? These kind of shows are for individuals with low intelligence, no morality, and untamed curiosity. For those who have never been responsible for the upbringing and education of another human being, and are careless and oblivious about their own.
Raul, The Netherlands
I thought we had a problem with morals over here. Thanks for making our load alittle easier.
Felton S Graham, Poquoson, Virginia, USA
In reference to Mr. Miller's comment, the saddest people are the competitors.
Barnaby Barnett, Durham, UK
Martin Clunes was in a drama/comedy a few years ago, called "Sex 'n' Death" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0227479/), that predicted how low reality TV might sink (as low as you can imagine). It doesn't seem at all far-fetched a few years on.
Andrew, Oxford, UK