A male contestant on a new VH1 dating show didn't beckon a woman to walk in front of him out of politeness. He wanted to check her out from behind, and didn't need to use his imagination.
The "Dating Naked" series is the latest example of reality television's newest trend. Nudity is hot, no longer confined to late-night premium cable.
Leading the way is Discovery's "Naked and Afraid," where a man and woman who don't know each other fend for themselves in the wilderness for three weeks without a stitch between them. That program's success since its June 2013 premiere begat VH1's "Dating Naked" and TLC's real estate show, "Buying Naked," with more in the planning stages.
What's the appeal?
Well, what do you think?
In a world of endless choices, titillation lures. So does a catchy title, and the word "naked" jumps off the program guide. Brent Montgomery, who produces the nonfiction hit "Pawn Stars" that airs on the History channel, says many early fans were drawn in by that title even though the show had nothing to do with the image left in your head. He's now doing the spinoff, "Pawnography."
To truly succeed, however, a show needs more going for it to keep viewers once the novelty of watching naked bodies with blurred body parts wears off.
"The secret sauce of our show is not the fact that they're naked," says Denise Contis, West Coast head of production and development at Discovery. "I think it's the storytelling, the cast and a survival experience that's authentic."
Memorable characters make successful shows, "and it takes a big character to take off their clothes in front of a reality TV camera," Montgomery says.
Standards are the same at each show: male and female genitalia are blurred out, along with female breasts. Backsides are fair game. A graphic artist takes about a week to cleanse each episode of "Naked and Afraid." A strategically placed flowerpot or sofa obscures the nude home shoppers in "Buying Naked."
Discovery wasn't searching for a "naked" show when developing "Naked and Afraid," Contis says. It wanted a new twist in the survival genre and, ultimately, the most elemental shelter is clothing.
Yet, let's face it: One hook is the question of whether a romance develops between two naked strangers left alone in the woods (except for the producers and camera crew, of course). It hasn't happened yet. The opposite is more likely; in one upcoming episode the two survivalists detest each other so much they agreed to separate until they were picked up at the end.
Romance is the point of "Dating Naked." Susan Levison, head of programming at VH1, gave the series a green light her first day on the job last September, and hurried to beat competitors to the air. Fox has its own naked dating show in the works, but put it on hold during a management change.
"The idea of using nudity as a metaphor for allowing yourself to be truly exposed and truly yourself in the search for love felt really fresh and exciting," Levison says.
While the nudity arguably serves a thematic purpose on "Dating Naked" and "Naked and Afraid," it's hard to see "Buying Naked" as anything other than a typical real estate show where prospective owners leave their clothes at home. TLC says the Florida-based show exposes the habits of a nearby nudist colony.
The "Dating Naked" debut earlier this month featured a woman in her 30s stung when her chosen man was distracted by a younger, gorgeous temptress - an intriguing story for VH1's female-dominated audience. The older woman's name, Wee Wee, trended on Twitter and the episode's audience of 826,000 easily beat the network's average of 335,000 viewers in the time slot. With more than 4 million viewers, "Naked and Afraid" was Discovery's most-watched series premiere ever.
That explains why plenty of other "naked" pitches are being heard in network boardrooms.
"You'll probably see four or five work and a dozen that don't work," Montgomery says.
The Parents Television Council is dismayed that each of the "naked" shows is judged by its network as being suitable for children. But Tim Winter, president of the lobbying group that backs family friendly programming, predicted the trend will be short-lived. Despite the ratings, the shows likely make many advertisers squeamish.
"It's just so lazy," he says. "This is how you have to resort to making a buck? Is this really what your entertainment brand stands for?"