Pop Culture

Time to define ‘flying under the radar’

Before we get to your questions, here's an issue that's been floating around for a while:

What exactly does it mean when people on reality shows are accused of "flying under the radar"?

Gael says: Most of us understand the general meaning of the phrase: In military terms, we're talking about an aircraft that is able to sneak in to enemy territory secretly because it can't be spotted.

The phrase has morphed into a useful saying in non-military situations as well. It's often used to describe a reality show contestant who's managing to stay on the show without doing anything extreme that would expose him or her to a lot of notice and a possible vote-off.

On Jenn M. has been repeatedly accused of under-the-radar play, as has Julie on It's especially become an issue with Jenn. Fellow "Apprentice" contestant Sandy defined it as "Jenn doesn't take as many risks as I do."

But "risks" can be a code word for "mistakes." Ivana on "The Apprentice" couldn't fly under the radar if her life depended on it. She was too prone to loud screaming matches and bonehead moves like .

Flying under the radar can be a legitimate reality strategy, if not as game-changing as Richard Hatch "discovering" alliances on "Survivor Borneo." In fact, flying under the radar may get you pretty far in the game, but with rare exceptions (See Andy's mention of Tina on "Survivor Australia," below), it's not going to get you the big bucks. And as more and more players start throwing the term around, the quieter players are likely to get called out for under-the-radar playing even if it wasn't intentional. Just one more development in a changing genre.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Andy says: Being “under the radar” can sometimes mean that the person’s actions or behavior were just invisible to us. In other words, the editors and producers purposefully don’t show certain conversations or events in order to create dramatic tension or to surprise the audience. A power player whose behavior is everything but transparent during taping can find him- or herself flying under the radar when the show actually airs.

The best — and first — example of this came during “Survivor Australia.” During the final episode, immunity winner Colby chose to boot Keith, thus facing off against Tina in front of the jury.

Viewers were aghast, mostly because it appeared that Colby would most certainly beat the far less popular Keith. Throughout the season, we never really saw anything to suggest an alliance between Colby and Tina.

From our perspective, Tina wasn’t flying under the radar; her strategic moves were just being ignored by the editors. Tina played an excellent game strategically, and certainly wasn’t as visible a power player as, say, Richard Hatch. But her radar-avoiding behavior can at least in part be credited to editors, who, of course, are really the ones in control.    —Andy Dehnart

Q: What happened to the “Mole”?    —Nedra, Buffalo

ABC’s reality series was ahead of its time, and born to parents that just didn’t appreciate it. The Anderson Cooper-hosted ABC series found players competing in brilliantly constructed games that were mentally, physically, and psychologically challenging, and which played out in exotic European locations. Tasks that were successfully completed added money to a collective pot, which the winner eventually took home.

The catch was that a single player was hired by the producers to sabotage some of the games, and the ultimate goal was to figure out that person’s identity. Everything from incompetent game play to self-preservation made players suspect. And Cooper frequently offered random players the opportunity to earn exemptions in exchange for betraying the team, thus offering plenty of occasion for suspicion. Like “The Amazing Race,” only contestants’ inability to perform could get them “executed.” At the end of every episode, the players took a test that quizzed them on their knowledge of the mole’s identity. The player who scored worst went home.

ABC aired two seasons of the show, although an idiotic decision to air “The Mole 2” on Friday nights in 2001 led to dismal performance, and the series was pulled mid-run until ABC finally brought it back in the summer of 2002. Then, the network aired two relatively successful seasons of “Celebrity Mole,” a less intense, less intelligent version hosted by Ahmad Rashad. (Anderson Cooper opted to sign on to a hosting gig at CNN rather than wait around for ABC to renew “The Mole.”) The second celebrity version aired earlier this year and did well, performing strongly among younger viewers.

Will it return? Despite the ratings, ABC decided to drop the series after the second celeb edition concluded in February. But Variety reported in February that production company Stone-Stanley (now just called Stone & Co. Entertainment) was working to sell the format to another network. If someone bites — please? — then we could finally see a third (real) season.    —A.D.

Q: What happened to Tim on Discovery Channel's "WingNuts"?  Gil

A: "WingNuts," which premiered in September, is one of those reality shows along the lines of "American Chopper." "WingNuts" followed three men who worked at southern California's , building custom furniture from old aircraft parts — a quirky business if ever there was one.

One of the more controversial figures on the show was Tim Roberts, who was disliked by some viewers, but viewed as a lively antagonist by others. According to the , after just two episodes of the show had aired, the 39-year-old Roberts collapsed in his home. His landlord attempted CPR, but it's possible that Roberts had collapsed hours before his girlfriend had discovered the body. Death was attributed to natural causes, nothing more specific has been said as to why Roberts died so young.

Carolyn McPartlin, publicity manager for The Discovery Channel, sent us this statement: "All of us here with Discovery Channel were deeply saddened after the passing of Tim Roberts. His liveliness and energy coupled with his passion to succeed contributed to every aspect of the WingNuts’ program. We were very fortunate to work with Tim."

In the wake of Roberts' death, the show's future was up in the air for a while, but we just got the official word: It's canceled, and the last episode airs tonight.

Says McPartlin: "At this time we have decided to stop production of 'WingNuts.' The final episode, the “Can’t Buy Me Love Seat” will appear on Tuesday, December 7 at 10 p.m. (PT/ET).  The show will be about the WingNuts team coming together to design and build a completely new product in less than one week for a fancy air show."    —G.F.C.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor. is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.