As I’ve written before, the Mars One Project intends to obtain some of its funding by licensing the media rights to broadcast the selection and training process. A few weeks ago, the news broke that Mars One and Lionsgate Television (WP) were negotiating the terms of a partnership aimed at producing a reality TV show (q.v. here and here). The scoop was premature: initially CEO Bas Landsdorp denied that a deal had been struck, but then acknowledged that negotiations were underway.
To the best of our knowledge, however, no contract has yet been signed. (Consistent with this, Lionsgate TV has not yet issued a press release on the matter). Thus, even if everything we know so far about the possibility of a deal is true, we should keep in mind that there’s no deal yet.
Due to the preliminary nature of this news, reliable details are scarce. One oft-repeated claim has it that Lionsgate or the network partner that eventually broadcasts the show will perform its own new search for participants, ultimately merging the new crop with the existing candidate pool identified last year by Mars One.
This could be good news or bad news: On the good side, the original applicant pool was just over 200,000, sizable but still only tiny fraction of potentially qualified humans; a second search with serious marketing muscle behind it could reach a much larger percentage of the best candidates for the mission. On the other hand, we already know something about how companies select talent for reality TV. I’m not convinced that a population of high-strung physical beauties is likely to be enriched for the skills needed to ensure the success of the mission.
There is a significant tension between what makes for good television and what would make for rigorous selection and training of literal astronauts planning to risk their literal lives. When preparations for an off-planet mission are going well, they aren’t (and shouldn’t be) “dramatic” in the way that holds viewers’ attention in what one source breathlessly called the “red-hot social experiment genre”. (There’s a reason why Ron Howard didn’t make his film about Apollo 11.)
Reality TV has reimagined Lord of the Flies, explored the petty depravity of rats in a cage, and invited us time and again to jeer at the antics of moral imbeciles, but it has very rarely explored the quiet victories of humans at our best.
These concerns have led others to criticize the proposed partnership, with one Mars One candidate decrying what she sees as potentially descending into a “lowbrow media circus”, and one entertainment reporter speculating, in essence, that the risks are simply too great to be prudently assessed:
While the series has yet to be given a title, we’re pretty sure for the first few seasons at least it will just be referred to as “that reality show were all those poor people died on the way to Mars.”
For now, I’m reserving judgment. We don’t yet know how the corporate partners will pursue additional searches, how they will seek to weigh in on the training and selection process, or even what the format of the reality show will ultimately be. This is new ground: the timescale is very long compared to other unscripted series (10 years at least, and that’s just the preamble on Earth), and the goals are unprecedented; old templates may not apply. Perhaps Hollywood and Madison Avenue will surprise us.
In the meantime, I remain cautiously optimistic. I’m glad that the media plan appears to be moving forward, and I’m eager to see what happens next.
P.S.: Stipulating that Lionsgate becomes the media partner, which network might broadcast the resultant reality show? Yesterday, fellow candidate Bill Dunlap pointed out to me that CBS has been covering Mars One more intensively than the other networks, leading me to do a bit of poking around on my own. I found nothing definitive, but it may be relevant that last month CBS and Lionsgate entered a distribution partnership, and Bas Landsdorp recently appeared on CBS’s This Morning.