The French media this morning roiled with speculation about the future of adventure/reality TV shows following the death of 10 people during the production of TF1’s Dropped in Argentina. In what is being called the biggest tragedy in the history of reality televison, three contestants — yachtswoman Florence Arthaud, Olympic swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine — along with five members of the production staff and the two pilots, died when two helicopters apparently collided at about 5:15 PM local time Monday.
The incident comes two years after a contestant died during the filming of TF1’s Koh-Lanta, the local version of Surivior. This morning, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into manslaughter over the Argentine crash.
Both Dropped and Koh-Lanta are made by Adventure Line Productions, a company owned by giant Zodiak Media. ALP was commissioned by TF1 to produce four episodes of Dropped that were due to air in primetime this summer. A crisis meeting is understood to have been held Monday night at TF1 headquarters outside Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt, and production has been halted. The remaining contestants and crew members are said to be in the process of returning to France.
Although the actual incidents are different — and while details of the crash in Argentina are still being investigated — the events of last night recall the 2013 situation when contestant Gérald Babin died on the Cambodian set of Koh-Lanta. Babin suffered a heart attack during the first day of shooting of that show’s 16th season, following a “shipwreck” challenge. TF1 immediately shut down production and flew everyone home. (A little over a week later, a doctor who had worked on the program committed suicide after writing that he was distraught by “false accusations and assumptions” in the media.) The season was ultimately cancelled and a judicial investigation for manslaughter was opened. According to Le Monde sources, in March last year, an agreement was reached in which ALP indemnified Babin’s family.
With increased on-set security, Koh-Lanta returned last fall to strong ratings and a subsequent season already has been shot. An announcement had been expected as to its 2015 airdates within the coming days. French media is speculating as to whether it will indeed be shown, although the director of Tele7Jours magazine told local news channel iTélé this morning he did not believe it was the “end of the genre.”
The Dropped format features athletic celebrities divided into two teams who are blindfolded and landed in some of the most remote locations on Earth. With no food, no map, and no help, they must make their way through unforgiving landscapes to find civilization and a helicopter to take them to the next location.
In a Nouvel Observateur article this morning, media analyst Fançois Jost wrote, “This tragic event obviously raises questions about our television. I think more than reality television, it is the general evolution of television towards the spectacular that is to be questioned. As for the future, it seems that this does not mean the end of reality TV.”
With investigators on site in Argentina — where, at the time of writing, it is early morning– France is in mourning over the loss of life, and French cable news channels are providing wall-to-wall coverage of the story. The pilots are reported to have been local hires who were transporting Arthaud, Muffat, Vastine and five members of ALP’s production crew. Reports say the helicopters were flying in La Rioja province when they collided and crashed, killing all aboard.
TF1 could scrap Dropped altogether. The network released a statement last night expressing its “great sadness” while ALP said its teams had “collapsed” in grief and expressed sympathies with the victims’ families and loved ones. “We are in contact with the production teams on site and with the French and Argentine authorities. We will communicate further information as soon as possible,” the company said. When reached by telephone, a receptionist at ALP said a company meeting was underway.
The series has also been commissioned by Norway’s TV2 for 10 episodes produced by Zodiak’s local outfit Mastiff. Sweden’s TV4 previously aired the survival/adventure series boosting the channel’s primetime average by 50%, according to Zodiak marketing materials. It was re-ordered there for a seven-episode 2nd season to air this year. It is unclear as yet whether any modifications will be made to the offshore programs or schedules.