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20 Years Ago, ABC Aired Two of the Worst Reality Shows of All Time

Are You Hot? and I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! were slammed by critics and ignored by viewers, but they heralded the future of reality TV.
  • Lorenzo Lamas on Are You Hot?; "Downtown" Julie Brown on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! (ABC)
    Lorenzo Lamas on Are You Hot?; "Downtown" Julie Brown on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! (ABC)

    In the span of six days in the winter of 2003, ABC premiered two shows that were seen as the absolute nadir of the still-burgeoning genre known as "reality television." Are You Hot? bowed on February 13, followed by the first American season of I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here on February 19. Both shows played into some of the popular assessments of reality TV — shallow, silly series that preyed upon the worst rubbernecking instincts of the audience. Both shows were just as superficial as their titles suggested. Neither one would be on the air a year later:Are You Hot lasted a mere six episodes, while I'm a Celebrity died on the vine, only to be resurrected on NBC in 2009 to similarly unenthusiastic response. At the end of 2003, both shows would be cited among the dregs of that year’s programming.

    It's been 20 years since Are You Hot? and I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here premiered, and while TV critics then and now would prefer to consign them to the dustbin of TV history, a look around the vast landscape of reality TV in 2023 reveals that these shows were surprisingly prescient about where certain corners of the reality genre would be headed decades down the line.

    Caveats about The Real World and An American Family aside, if we accept the U.S. premiere of Survivor in the summer of 2000 as the beginning of reality TV, then the genre was still in its infancy when Are You Hot? and I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here debuted. Today, the reality genre is vast enough that it has its own strata of quality, from top-shelf award winners like Top Chef, Survivor and The Amazing Race, to the self-contained Bravo universe of Real Housewives and below-deck sailors. But back then, all reality shows were tossed into the same bucket and subject to scorn from the people who both made and enjoyed scripted television.

    Survivor, while a growing phenomenon, was also hounded by criticisms for being voyeuristic and trashy (they ate rats!). Reality TV garnering respect on par with the best of scripted television was still a long way away. And in the ensuing years, the producers of reality shows weren't doing a ton to help enhance the genre's reputation. Shows like Temptation Island, Fear Factor, The Osbournes, and The Bachelor were slammed for being classless and exploitative. A number of them were popular enough to pose a threat to quality (i.e., scripted) programming.

    Are You Hot? came from producer Mike Fleiss, one of the great TV boogeymen of the 21st century. Fleiss' The Bachelor had premiered a year earlier with its glib view of modern romance as a competitive pageant where marriage-hungry women elbowed each other out of the way to land one hunky man. Fleiss was already notorious by this point for his 2000 TV special Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, which was ripped to shreds by TV critics even before it became the subject of multiple controversies.

    The cynicism at the heart of both The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire — essentially, "if we were honest, we'd admit that modern romance is a shallow pursuit of looks and money" — is present at an even more basic level in Are You Hot?. Taking away even the pretense of human interaction and complex emotions, Are You Hot? paraded contestants in front of an American Idol-style panel of judges, including actor Lorenzo Lamas and former model Rachel Hunter, where they were judged solely on their physical appearance. That was… the whole show. Armed with a laser pointer, Lamas was particularly ruthless in his assessment of every physical flaw he could find.

    For Fleiss, the show was refreshingly unpretentious about why people watched reality TV in the first place: to judge other people in the most superficial way possible. "We wanted to cut to the chase and make a show that gives viewers what they want without having to make them wait for it," Fleiss told Entertainment Weekly around the show's premiere.

    TV critics did not hold back their revulsion. Variety called the show "awful" and "a poorly executed softcore porn special that thinks it’s a genuine beauty contest." American audiences also rejected the show, apparently a bit more discerning than Fleiss had given them credit for. The show was taken off the air after six low-rated episodes, never to return.

    Six days after Are You Hot? debuted, ABC premiered the U.S. version of what had been a hit British reality series I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. The show gathered 10 D-List (at best) celebrities and dropped them in the middle of a remote jungle setting to compete with each other. The premise obviously owed a lot to Survivor, though it seemed calibrated to bounce between campy rubbernecking and a genuine quest for survival. The show aired for 15 consecutive nights, with celebrities like Melissa Rivers, Tyson Beckford, Downtown Julie Brown, and a pre-transition Caitlyn Jenner competing.

    The problem with I'm a Celebrity… wasn't that it was trashy (though it was) or voyeuristic (ditto), but that it was so incredibly boring. The low level of celebrity on display made it hard for audiences to get all that invested in watching them debase themselves for TV cash and prizes. And the nightly airing of the episodes (many of which aired live) only emphasized the fact that this was a rather short-term stint in the jungle. On March 5th, the season was won by Cris Judd, whose claim to fame was being once married to Jennifer Lopez, and who in general seemed like a nice, if not terribly exciting, guy. I'm a Celebrity… didn't fare much better than Are You Hot? in terms of longevity. NBC revived the show in 2009 with cast members like Janice Dickinson, Stephen Baldwin, and Heidi and Spencer Pratt, but it still failed to catch on.

    Are You Hot? and I'm a Celebrity… were bad TV shows, and they deserved to fail. But like a poltergeist that finds a new house to haunt in the movie's final frames, both shows have managed to survive in spirit, if not in their original forms.

    The base-level view of human interaction on display in Are You Hot? has flourished recently on reality dating shows like Too Hot to Handle and Married at First Sight. Almost any dating show that streams on Netflix is in some way about the primacy of aesthetics, even if the premise of the show is ostensibly about seeing beyond those aesthetics, like on Love Is Blind. What do we ultimately crave on a show like Love Is Blind but that moment when the coupled-up contestants see each other for the first time, sizing one another up in the most superficial way imaginable? You can practically see Lamas' laser pointer moving around again.

    Meanwhile, the celebrity-reality industrial complex has only boomed in the years since I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! flopped. The aforementioned Osbournes had already premiered and ushered in the era of candid "celebreality" looks at the manicured home lives of the rich and (at least formerly) famous. But celebrities have taken to competitive reality as well. Shows like Celebrity Mole and Dancing with the Stars began to cultivate an ever-widening subset of celebrities who showed they were more than game for competing and, yes, sometimes embarrassing themselves on reality shows. Nearly 100 celebrities appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice over the years, and now have to pretend they never met Donald Trump.

    The types of celebrities who appear on these shows have gotten more varied now. There are washed-up actors, yes, but also actors whose careers are still very much active. Marlee Matlin (an Oscar winner!) was on The Celebrity Apprentice. Zendaya and Niecy Nash were on Dancing with the Stars. Mike White appeared on two seasons of The Amazing Race and nearly won Survivor in between writing School of Rock and winning Emmys for The White Lotus.

    Back in 2003, the TV critics who slammed Are You Hot? and I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! were right to do so. But neither critics nor audiences could have imagined the vast and ever-expanding world of reality programming we have now, much of which owes some kind of unconscious debt to the creative impulses behind this pair of wretched shows. Maybe we can get "Downtown" Julie Brown to appear on the next season of The Traitors and close that loop.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Reality TV, Are You Hot?, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Caitlyn Jenner, "Downtown" Julie Brown, Lorenzo Lamas, Melissa Rivers, Mike Fleiss, Rachel Hunter