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Published: Tuesday, 1/9/2001

Will sex and sand lure viewers to Fox?

BY ELAINE LINER
BLADE MEDIA EDITOR

LOS ANGELES - Most game shows pick contestants after test-ing them on their knowledge of current events and making them promise not to cheat while they're playing for the prize money. Fox's reality/game show, Temptation Island, debuting at 9 p.m. tomorrow, tested its players for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and made sure ev-erybody chosen had no qualms about cheating once the cameras rolled.

That's the whole point of this provocative one-hour show, which attempts to gauge the affections of four young, unmarried but “seriously committed” couples by surrounding them with beautiful singles. The pairs are separated for a two-week stay on an island resort near Belize. The “couple-guys” - Andy, Kaya, Billy, and Taheed - live at one end of the beach in a compound inhabited by a dozen scantily-clad single women (including a Playboy model, an aspiring VJ, and Miss Georgia 2000). The “couple-girls” - Shannon, Valerie, Mandy, and Ytossie - reside in flirt heaven at the other end with a dozen mostly-undressed guys (including a masseur, a motocross racer, and a poet).

In each of the six installments, the couple-halves are set up on dates from the pool of singles. Their “confessions” about what happened on the outings are videotaped and played back for their would-be spouses to see at each night's ritual bonfire ceremony, which just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the torch-lit “tribal councils” of CBS' Survivor. Host Mark L. Walberg does his best to mimic Survivor host Jeff Probst. And the couple-guys and couple-girls decide which tempters to boot off the island in a series of vote-offs.

But unlike the CBS show, which had a $1 million prize, the only goal of Temptation Island is to see who cheats and who doesn't. (Players received an “appearance fee” of a few thousand dollars for taking part in the show, but there's no prize money per se.)

It doesn't take long for the players to start playing around. By the end of the first episode, it's clear there's more than one cheatin' heart under all the SPF. The men seem especially eager to comparison shop before settling down.

“It's like the Pepsi challenge,” says 26-year-old Andy, “but with ladies being the soft drink.”

Predictably, tears are shed and jealous tantrums are thrown as the couples discover that loyalty hits a low tide on this fantasy island.

“I've ruined my life!” weeps one of the couple-guys, pounding his fist in the sand.

At the Fox network's midseason press conference Sunday, programming executives took the heat for the show's unabashedly tawdry content (played to the max in promos that have run for weeks). After all, just last summer network chairman Sandy Grushow had sworn to TV critics that Fox's involvement with reality specials such as Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and World's Scariest Police Chases was at an end. “They're gone; they're over,” he said then.

And now, just in time for February sweeps, they're back.

Grushow blames Survivor. “Not only was the show a success, it became a cultural phenomenon. Audiences flocked to it, advertisers flocked to it. The audience has demonstrated that they have a huge appetite for this type of non-scripted programming. So we're going to try to take advantage of that,” said Grushow.

Fox picked up the idea for Temptation Island from producers Jean-Michel Michenaud and Chris Cowan, the pair responsible for the Fox movies Getting Away with Murder: The JonBenet Ramsey Story and After Diff'rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped.

Compared to those projects, Temptation Island might be a step up in programming quality.

Producer Cowan defends Temptation Island against criticism that its purpose is to orchestrate the destruction of the real-life relationships of the four couples involved.

“I would not produce a show the goal of which was to have a negative impact on another human being,” said Cowan, a Cleveland native and 1990 Ohio University graduate.

“The ultimate goal for the couples is for them to gain more answers as to who they are as people and what their relationships mean to them. By no means was it our intention to choose couples whose relationship ends on the show,” said Cowan, who interviewed some 250 couples to find the final four. The show offers “a unique insight into how people make decisions about their lives and their own relationships and how they choose to explore the ideas of commitment and morality,” Cowan said. “And it's about putting people into a moral dilemma.”

Not to mention some pretty darned skimpy swimwear.

Twenty camera crews rolled tape on the two island compounds during the two weeks of production last September. “We filmed everything that happened,” Cowan said, not being specific about how much of the sexual activity was documented. But he said the episodes are being edited “within the bounds of good taste. We are judging most of the time what we believe is salacious against what moves the stories forward.”

All the participants were tested for sexually transmitted diseases but the show did not provide free condoms, he said. “But everyone knew where they could get them if they needed them.”

The show also did not provide free liquor, although it was available for purchase at the resort. “They were all consenting adults of legal age,” Cowan said.

Cowan also said a psychiatrist was on the island “monitoring everyone's experience and emotional state.” That included exit interviews.

He wouldn't say whether any of the couples had broken up for good because of what happened on the show. But he has kept in contact with all of them and will include an update at the end of the final episode.

Cowan, 33, is single himself, but is in a “committed relationship.” No way would he and his girlfriend be contestants on his own show, he said. “The people who went (to the island) had questions they wanted answers to. I don't have those questions in my relationship.”

He and Fox reality-show exec Mike Darnell begged journalists not to try to find any of the couples or singles from the show. On-air they're identified only by first names. Fox wouldn't even reveal their hometowns.

“We'd ask that you not try to track them down,” said Darnell, with no hint of irony. “We want to respect their privacy.”



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