ABC is prepping what will likely be the most expensive and ambitious reality series to hit network television yet. It also might be the most dangerous if not executed properly.
The Runner, pitched to network executives a year ago by Oscar winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, is headed to ABC in the fall and will bring viewers actively into a nationwide manhunt. One contestant will cross the country while trying to avoid being caught by viewers. ABC plans to launch the series in September, likely at least twice a week. Live break-ins during ABC's prime time schedule each week will give clues to where the runner is.
Network executives say they are still very much in the development process. The show will combine the Internet, taped and live television, and, they hope, millions of viewers who want a chance to win up to $1 million. If the runner completes the trek without getting caught, he or she will win $1 million.
The show's producers, LivePlanet (Affleck and Damon's production company) and Disney-owned Touchstone Television, are not rushing the process for one important reason: safety. The thought of crazed viewers' breaking laws and possibly being injured trying to catch the runner has ABC executives fretting.
"I would say this is going to be the most difficult show we've ever tried to do at the network," says Andrea Wong, ABC's senior vice president of alternative series and specials. "And we are not going to do this show unless we can make sure it's safe."
LivePlanet's Sean Bailey says, "We are building this with safety as a paramount concern. We have set it up so that a viewer who approaches the runner cannot win. There will be very little incentive to ever touch or even approach the runner."
Media buyer Tom DeCabia, of Schulman-Advanswers NY, doesn't see a downside from his perspective. "They are going to have to take some real safety precautions so it doesn't get out of hand. I think, if it's done right, it could really turn into water-cooler material."
Paul Montgomery of ABC affiliate WRTV-TV Indianapolis says, "When I heard the concept, I thought everybody could be literally on the hunt for this person, and that could be scary."
The Runner was rumored to be dead until Roger Goodman was brought in a few months ago. A 36-year network veteran who produced ABC 2000, among other things, he is now running the show and is executive producer alongside LivePlanet executives. They are currently casting five or six runners and setting up the cross-country course. If one runner is caught, ABC will release another from a new starting point.
Once the race begins, viewers will be able to sign up via the Internet to be an agent, which means that they can officially catch the runner and win at least $50,000. The Internet will also be used to announce clues and allow viewers to play along.
As for Damon and Affleck, don't look for them to host The Runner or appear on camera during any of the episodes. "They are co-creators of this show, they are executive producers, and they are very creatively involved," says LivePlanet's Bailey, "but they are not going to be on camera."