Who Wants to Be Employed?

Out of work or afraid that you might soon be? Not to worry. Americans may soon be able to compete for jobs the old fashioned way: on a reality TV show.

It's no joke. In the latest addition to the reality genre, contestants will go head to head for a chance at that increasingly scarce commodity, employment. Potential candidates will place ads with an employment agency, then undergo tests and on-the-job training. Finally, the two applicants deemed most qualified by the agency will subject themselves to the ultimate job interview: viewer approval. The candidate with the most viewer votes gets the job; the loser will be sent packing: "You are unemployed -- goodbye!"

The format, picked up recently by Sony Pictures Television International and being offered to TV stations around the world, is based on a controversial hit show in Argentina called "Human Resources." In the Argentine version, viewers pick a winner based on whose story is the most moving. (Good looks don't hurt either.)

"The audience prefers poor people who cannot maintain their families," producer Herman Frato told CNN earlier this year. "Maybe their wife is pregnant and they need medicine." In one recent episode, the audience was so touched by the stories of two out-of-work women that they voted to award both a job.

Such heartwarming stories may fly south of the border, but here in the U.S. we like our reality shows served up mean. Think "Fear Factor" meets the unemployment office.

Whatever form the American version of "Human Resources" takes, there's one thing the show will have plenty of: contestants. With millions of Americans now without a regular paycheck, millions more worried about their own job security and the DOW hovering close to ABC's Nielson ratings, there are worse things than mugging for the camera. Just ask the likes of the "Real World" kids, the misfits in the Big Brother House and under-employed semi-celebrities like Kato Kaelin and Coolio.

But will people tune in to watch "Survivors: The Economic Downturn"? You bet. In a thoroughly unscientific survey of current job seekers -- several of whom I'm related to -- I failed to turn up any potential candidates, but found plenty of would-be-viewers. "I'd definitely watch," one out-of-work friend told me. "This is the real thing. Not just spoiled brats on an island competing for a million bucks, or greedy fools being covered with rats."

Note to embattled ABC programming chief Susan Lyne: "Who Wants To Be Employed?" could be the next "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

The only question posed by the show's near certain success is, Why stop there? Sure, plenty of Americans are out of work, but even more are without health insurance and retirement plans. Why not TV shows for all of the things we currently lack?

Seniors could go head to head in an gray-haired version of "Survivor," navigating accessible obstacle courses, munching on strange bugs and worms, even competing to see who can remain upright longest -- "Outwit, Outplay, Outlive." The prize: prescription drug coverage.

Or how about this for the "Real World": an extended family agrees to live in the same house together after the real estate bubble finally pops. Viewers tune in week after week as the family's buying power shrivels.

Then again, reality can be a real drag.

I>Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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