Reality shows on commercial TV stations in the Czech Republic are currently
all the rage. But, public broadcaster Czech Radio came up with a truly
unique take on the reality show format. Called "The Unmasking"
the programme's stars are four gorillas at the Prague Zoo. 16 cameras give
visitors on the internet a precious glimpse of their private lives, 24
hours a day.
The site is www.rozhlas.cz/odhaleni/english. Members
of the public can vote for their "favourite" by sending SMS
phone text messages. Proceeds from SMS messages will go towards saving
gorillas in the wild, in their natural habitat. It is, in short, a full
multi-media project accessible on the internet, TV, and Czech Radio
airwaves. Every day Czech TV's news channel CT 24 offers news of the
latest developments, and a short edited clip of the gorillas' latest
exploits can also be seen at www.zoopraha.cz. News reports are also being
broadcast on all stations of Czech Radio.
The Odhaleni project began on November 7th, 2005 and will last until
January 15th, 2006.
It was only just a few months ago that Czechs were first introduced - some
would say subjected to - reality TV. In late summer two new programmes hit
the commercial stations, Big Brother and the then lesser-known VyVoleni
(The Selected), drawing a great deal of media attention. Millions have now
tuned in - and a great number of young viewers watch regularly - but others
were turned-off from the start, either unimpressed or offended by the
exploits of the shows' overnight celebrities. Until now. A new reality
show begun this month by Czech Radio has grabbed perhaps these viewers'
attention, a show that can be said to be "truly different", even
at first glance. The reason? The stars of the programme are gorillas.
The show, called Odhaleni - Unmasking, was put together by Czech Radio in
connection with public broadcaster Czech TV. On November 7th a total of
sixteen cameras began monitoring the exploits of four gorillas at Prague
Zoo, and will continue taping and broadcasting on the internet for the
next two months. Just like in other reality shows, viewers can tune in to
see daily clips, or live action, and, just like in Big Brother or The
Selected, one can send in phone text messages in support of their
favourite star. Petr Fejk, the director of Prague Zoo, describes some of
the gorillas on the show:
"Shinda is fourteen and Kijivu is twelve, both are female gorillas
sent back to Europe from Melbourne, Australia, where they spent their
youth. After they came out of puberty and reached adulthood, the
coordinator for gorilla breeding in Europe decided the apes should return.
At the Prague Zoo they were joined by Richard, a so-called silver-back, a
dominant male, who quickly became the leader of the group."
Richard and Kijivu mated and a year ago Kijivu gave birth to her first
baby - Moja - the only gorilla ever born in captivity in the Czech
Republic. Even now experts aren't quite sure whether Moja is a boy or a
girl, although the zoo's director Petr Fejk says some zoo visitors have
their minds made up:
"Some visitors who have come to the zoo think that we've been making
things up! They come forward with photographs they've taken that they
think clearly show or prove that Moja has a penis, that he's a male! But,
with gorillas it's not that simple. It's not that easy to recognise, so
you have to take different steps, in this case a DNA test. Right now we're
planning on sending samples from Moja's fur, as well as stool samples for
to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether he's a boy - or a
As the only baby in the group in Odhaleni, Moja is the only gorilla not in
official competition. That might seem a little unfair, since anyone who has
tuned in will have noticed he is often the liveliest of the bunch, though
the others are no slouches either.
At this point who knows who will steal the show?
Viewers can vote for their favourite gorilla and in the end the winner
will walk off - well not really walk off - he or she will be given 12
melons. Clearly, a lot is at stake. Why melons? In the other reality shows
'melons' are all we've been hearing about for weeks and it's not what you
might think: in Czech slang, 'meloun' or the plural 'melouni' mean
"millions", as in millions in cash.
Of course, many comparisons have been made between the gorillas and their
human counterparts. Who's bossy? Who's nice? Who's willing to bare it all?
In Odhaleni, Richard, weighing in at over 200 kilos, could be the
front-runner. But, like his human counterparts in other reality shows, he
can also be hard-headed. His keeper, Marek Zdansky, explains Richard
sometimes really digs in his heels.
"When our scale was working he purposely refused to go near it. So we
only get to measure him once in a while. Last time, he weighed in at 208
kilos. When the scale was broken he lounged all over it. Now that it's
fixed he stays away."
The female gorillas also occasionally also get into occasional tussles:
not long ago they got into a bit of a fight and Moja - the baby -
apparently only just out of their path. Tempers can occasionally run high,
and according to Marek Zdansky, even presenting the eventual winner with
his prize in a few months time may prove difficult:
"We can't send the gorillas into the pen one at a time, [for the
winner to claim the prize for everyone to see: those left out would be
confused and would act up and would scream. They're used to the fact that
in the pen each has his place and they're fed by the keeper who hands them
their food. Handing out the melons could be a difficult riddle to solve. We
haven't solved the problem yet."
The Prague Zoo, under Petr Fejk, has gained a remarkably high profile in
recent years, deservedly, for projects introducing magnificent new
pavilions, improving conditions for animals, and making the zoo more
user-friendly. But, in the case of reality TV when he was approached by
Czech Radio, he still took some persuading: it was only a promise that
proceeds would go towards a project in Africa to save gorillas in the wild
that a deal was clinched. Since then, Odhaleni has proved to be a huge
marketing success, Countless organisations reported on the apes worldwide.
Thanks to Odhaleni, viewers can now tune in to learn more about gorillas
and stay longer than they ever would in the park. The head of Czech
Radio's science station (Leonardo) Miroslav Bobek indicates the project is
already a success:
"Reaction has been extensive and most of it is good. 95 percent of
visitors in on-line discussions have greeted the programme favourably and
are very excited about it. [Our gorilla reality show] made headlines
worldwide, and stories were aired on many stations, including, for
example, Fox News in the US. Czech expatriates take part in on-line
discussions too, having heard about the show through the news. While we
haven't recorded a final number of visitors at the website yet, our
estimate now is that website viewings number in the tens of
The website - www.rozhlas.cz/odhaleni/ offers many different features,
including, audio, live camera and edited clips, games, and profiles of the
"contestants". Information is available in both English and
Czech. Readers, for example, can learn how long gorillas live, about their
moods, and that gorillas need fresh branches to eat. I, for example,
watched for fifteen minutes one day as Richard peeled and chewed on bark,
even as I ate my own lunch in the office by the computer screen. He
probably has better manners! On the other hand, I don't put up quite as
much a fight in getting up on the scale.
Of the three reality shows currently on offer in the Czech Republic, each
has a distinctive flavour: VyVoleny on TV Prima is more about friendships
and getting arguments, while Big Brother on TV Nova has been - to a large
extent - about sex.
But, only Odhaleni has gorillas, and little Moja, he alone is worth the
'price of admission'.
When the Odhaleni cameras turn off in 2006 the gorillas' lives in the zoo
will of course continue pretty much as normal. But at least we will have
gotten to know them: our close cousins at the Prague Zoo, the great apes.
Watch Odhaleni at www.rozhlas.cz/odhaleni/english
Photo: Khalil Baalbaki, www.rozhlas.cz/odhaleni