This was posted by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk Blog on Thursday, January 19, 2017
Producers of reality competition shows like to have a certain level of control over its contestants and the shooting environment.
For shows like “The Voice” and “Dancing with the Stars,” they can track all the players in a single studio. CBS’s’ long-running “The Amazing Race” throws in far more variables in multiple foreign countries but even then, they can roughly map out where contestants need to be each day.
It’s even rougher for the creators of CBS’s new show “Hunted,” which debuts Sunday night (January 22) after the AFC Championship Game.
Nine couples, many from Georgia, are labeled “fugitives” and given one hour to pack their things and scat. Then professional hunters, also including some locals, try to track them down within 28 days. If a couple lasts that long without capture, they pocket $250,000.
In effect, it’s an incredibly elaborate game of hide and seek.
Rob Smith, an executive vice president for the production company Endemol Shine who used to work on another challenging reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” said “Hunted” is an American version of a successful British version of the same name. “We had a pretty good template,” he said.
This show involved an incredible amount of advance strategizing. “We had to look at every possible eventuality and plan for it,” he said. “Then we rode it out.”
Structurally, they kept it simple. There’s no on-air host, only a narrator. There is no elimination round, no challenges. The contestants merely have to come up with strategies to stay off the grid and avoid getting caught by professionals who track fugitives down for a living.
Theoretically, if everyone is caught, nobody wins a penny. Or if everyone eludes capture, CBS would have to shell out $2.25 million.
To keep fugitives from fleeing to Barbados or the Arctic Circle, the show restricted the fugitives to a still sizable 100,000 square miles covering the entire state of Georgia (to take advantage of the state’s generous tax credits) and parts of neighboring states.
Beyond that, the producers had no idea where the fugitives were going any given day. They could end up in a cave in the North Georgia mountains. They might land in a dismal flophouse in Macon. They could be in a barn in rural South Carolina. And the production company had to keep camera crews reasonably incognito so couples wouldn’t arouse suspicion.
The hunters were given limited information about the fugitives beyond their names, photos and last known location. And to make it more difficult to decide who the viewer should root for, the fugitives wer not charged with any fake crimes. When the contestants needed help from strangers, they were not allowed to say they are contestants on a reality competition show but otherwise could make up any story they needed to in order to survive.
“We couldn’t really plan ahead,” said Michele Domineck, a Snellville hairstylist who was paired up with her lifelong friend Angela Brinson, a retail associate from Douglasville. “We had to try to stay away from calling home so much and never go anywhere twice to stay ahead of the hunters. We tried to stay off the grid.”
“I’m a single mom,” said Brinson, who is the more outgoing of the two. “It was hard to stay away from my daughter. Fortunately, we had each other. Some days, Michele pushed me. Some days, I pushed her. We had to remember we were doing this for our families.”
Among the local hunters was John “Buck” Smith (no relation to Rob) of Walton County, who recently retired from the U.S. Marshals Service after 32 years. He said he was required to leave due to his age. Now at 59, “I still feel young. I’m in better shape than most folks still working. I miss the hunt. This is a great opportunity to get back in and do something that I love. Plus, in this case, chances are, I won’t get shot at.”
Rob Smith said many of the fugitives enjoyed being chased for a few days but the novelty quickly wore out. The paranoia and lack of sleep caught up with many of them and they’d start making mistakes. They’d miss family members and reach out, potentially exposing their locations.
The stress, Brinson admitted, was real: “We were always looking over our shoulders.”
Buck Smith said family is an Achilles heel for many real fugitives as well, but there is no single formula to catch one.
“It just depends on the resources the fugitives have,” Smith said. “Some are smarter than others. Some have more contacts and connections. That all plays into it. There is no cookie-cutter fugitive.” Some can be caught in a matter of hours. Others escape capture for years, if not decades.
Ryan Phillips, who goes by Ry-Phi, is part of the Command Center where intelligence is collected, coordinated and parceled out. He is also a lead instructor for the SWAT team in Fayette County. He’s so dedicated to this type of work, he took a month of vacation to shoot the show.
He said he quickly forgot this was just a game. “I go into auto pilot,” Phillips said. “I was taking it personally. I treated the fugitives like they slit my grandfather’s throat. I am waiting for them to make a mistake. They have to be lucky every time. We only have to be lucky once.”
There were four other fugitives with Atlanta ties: UGA grad Mike Svoboda, Matt Sundberg (who now lives in Charleston but grew up in Atlanta) and Sentra and Thu Tran, who are gamers. [UPDATE: In the first episode, Matt and his fiance made a crucial mistake. They drove from Charleston, S.C. to Augusta, where they ditched their car and chose to go by bus to Atlanta. They used an ATM in a bus station that was immediately detected by the hunters and proceeded to use a bus at that station. An employee at the station quickly IDed them as going to Atlanta and they were caught at the Greyhound bus station in Atlanta at 232 Forsyth Street red handed. They were on the run for less than a day.]
“Hunted,” debuting after the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 22, CBS. Regular time period will be 8 p.m. Wednesdays starting January 25.