A half-dozen women gather in a house to help each other improve their lives, all the while being filmed for television. What sounds like a friendlier, feminist version of “Big Brother” — “Big Sisterhood”? — may be even more groundbreaking. The new syndicated series “Starting Over” promises to fuse reality TV with the daytime soap opera.
IT ALSO WIDELY introduces the concept of “life coaches,” individuals hired to guide people toward personal or professional fulfillment.
First, the concept for “Starting Over,” which debuts Sept. 8 (check listings for time, station). It’s from the producers of MTV’s “Real World,” who a decade ago pioneered the idea of making entertainment out of juiced-up everyday life.
As the reality craze grew, Bunim-Murray Productions was repeatedly approached about bringing a version of “Real World” to daytime television, Jonathan Murray said in an interview.
He and Mary-Ellis Bunim thought creating a consistently engaging reality series on a daily, rather than weekly, basis was impossible. But the staleness of daytime TV kept the idea alive, Murray said.
“We were discussing it a couple years ago and said the same old stuff is happening in daytime — soap operas, game shows and talk shows,” he said. He and Bunim also realized they had encountered a number of women who were dissatisfied with their lives.
“They had taken a path they weren’t happy with and wanted a chance to start over, but financial or other reasons keep them from doing it,” Murray said.
Enter the life coach, a concept that Murray concedes may be foreign to many viewers but which made “Starting Over” possible by giving structure to the women’s lives in the house and advancing their stories.
“Life coaches are really big in New York and California, and expanding. They’re your coach, they’re your cheerleader, they’re your researcher,” he said. Coaches were picked instead of therapists because “Starting Over” wanted “to take the women forward” rather than examine their pasts.
A pair of gurus is used. Rhonda Britten, according to her biography, is founder of the Fearless Living Institute, host of a British TV program called “Help Me Rhonda” and an author whose books include “Fearless Living: Live Without Excuses and Love Without Regret.”
Her fellow coach is Rana Walker, who studied psychology, holds a master’s degree and co-founded the Diamond Cutter company to help businesses and individuals get, among other things, “the most out of life.”
Britten and Walker guide the residents of the “Starting Over” house in Chicago toward fulfilling goals such as weight loss and career improvement. One young widow seeks help accepting her loss.
The women in the first group, who “auditioned” to be part of the show, range in age from 20 to 62 and come from various states including New York, Texas and Illinois.
There is bonding, confrontation and, as the plan has it, growth. The women are regularly evaluated by the coaches with the aim of graduating out of the house. Those guilty of slacking can be evicted.
BIGGER THAN TALK
The series has already been nicknamed a “soaprah” (by Crain’s Chicago Business publication) for its combination of soap opera-style stories and issues favored by talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey’s.
It’s bigger than talk, Murray contends.
“Unlike the talk shows, here you’re able to make real change in people’s lives. It’s not just a 45-minute checkup. It can be 11, 12 weeks of intensive work for the women and you follow through that process.”
The series, from NBC Enterprises domestic syndication, will reach more than 90 percent of TV markets through NBC and other network stations.
One expert believes “Starting Over” could appeal to daytime viewers. Robert Schork, assistant managing editor of Soap Opera Weekly, watched a rough cut of the first episode and was impressed.
The series has the intimacy of a soap opera but, unlike serials, doesn’t demand that viewers keep up every day, he said. The episodes are designed to stand on their own and as part of continuing stories.
Schork recites other elements in its favor.
“It’s the first of its kind, a unique hybrid. Bunim-Murray have a certain cachet and the show is getting interesting buzz. NBC is co-producing, so they have their largesse behind it,” Schork said.
Since it’s syndicated, the show will air at different times nationwide. In some markets, it will compete against talk shows that include freshman entries with Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Osbourne; in others, it could be up against the soap operas it’s inspired by.
Serials have faced declining viewership in recent years, particularly since heavy coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial pre-empted them and kicked the soap habit for some fans, Schork said. Competition from cable and the increasing number of working women are part of the decline.
That’s a situation “Starting Over” can capitalize on, Murray said.
“A lot of the daytime audience is still available. They’re watching ‘A Dating Story’ or ‘A Baby Story’ (on TLC). They have tired of what is being offered to them on the daytime hours by the networks. We think we have an opportunity to bring viewers back.”© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.