The Austrian reality show “Family Swap” takes the concept of the British hit “Wife Swap” further by mixing people with different backgrounds. It’s a recipe for disaster, and that’s the whole idea — most episodes offer plenty of fighting.
“Wife Swap” is broadcast in Britain and Germany, and ABC plans to air a U.S. version. In the hugely successful British version, two wives swap homes, husbands and families for 10 days. During the first five days, the women must live by the rules of their new families; for the last five, they set the rules.
The Austrian version, which swaps select family members, began in June and was to end this month, but it’s been extended to May because of strong ratings.
“Neither. I am human,” Dursun Salman responded, adding that he’s of Turkish heritage.
Gerda then lashed out with an even nastier epithet.
Salman’s 35-year-old girlfriend, Melike Sanalmis, endured even worse abuse while living with a racist Viennese family. She calmly tried to reason with her hosts to make them question their prejudices.
The exchange was supposed to include Sanalmis’ 6-year-old son, but she sent him away shortly after it started, saying the hateful environment was harming the child.
The show identifies participants by their first names only, though Sanalmis and Salman gave their full names in a recent interview.
Sanalmis, who has lived in Austria for 16 years, never expected she’d be able to reform the racists. But she had hoped to make them think in new ways.
Their refusal to listen changed her outlook on humanity.
“I always used to think there’s something good to be found in each person. I no longer believe that,” she said.
The flagrant racism in the episodes sparked debate in Austria, a country long beset by allegations of racism and xenophobia. Some condemned the Viennese family’s behavior; others criticized ATV-Plus — Austria’s first private television station, which is behind the show.
Hundreds of people showed up at Salman’s restaurant to apologize for their countrymen following the broadcasts a few weeks ago. Many recorded their reactions in a notebook serving as the restaurant’s guest book.
“I was speechless, shocked and furious,” one guest wrote.
Salman said he agreed to participate partly because he wanted to draw customers to his struggling eatery, but mostly to dispel Austrians’ perceptions of foreigners as lazy welfare recipients who don’t speak German.
“We wanted to show that we are integrated people and that we have earned a chance to live in Vienna,” he said.
ATV-Plus came up with the concept of “Family Swap” as a way to attract attention as it tries to carve out a niche among powerful competitors, said program director Markus Andorfer. Besides the giant state-funded broadcaster ORF’s two channels, Austria’s 8 million people also can pick up German stations.
“If you do reality, you have to bring in surprising elements, bring in conflicts,” said Andorfer, whose small, nationwide station started in June. “The new point in television is to bring some psychological or sociological aspects into the show.”
Julia Ortner, a TV columnist for an alternative weekly, argued that while “Family Swap” offers “a sociological perspective that’s quite interesting,” it’s not quality television.
“It also doesn’t aspire to be that,” she said. “It’s entertainment television with an enlightening character. But most of all, it’s rating-focused television.”