LOS ANGELES—CBS executives announced Monday that they have begun filming Antebellum Island, a new "alternate reality" series in which 12 strangers compete for $1 million while isolated on an island still under Confederate rule.
"Set to air in the spring of 2004, Antebellum Island gives us the unique opportunity to play with both social dynamics and recorded history," CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said. "The contestants on Antebellum Island will spend 60 days braving the elements, each other, and the unfamiliar customs and practices of a 21st-century Confederate States of America—all for a chance to win a cool million."
Added Moonves: "That's one million in Union dollars, of course!"
Moonves said contestants will be isolated on a sun-drenched tropical island, where they will participate in competitions designed to emphasize teamwork and interpersonal friction in the rigidly stratified alternate-universe society.
The Big Four networks have seen dwindling Nielsen numbers for variations on reality shows, a trend CBS hopes to reverse with a new genre of programs that "go beyond reality."
"When we were brainstorming this show, we knew we wanted an eclectic cast and an exotic locale," said Matt Davies, executive producer of Antebellum Island. "But none of the ideas were clicking as 'reality plus totally new'—until someone said, 'Hey, no one's done a show set in an America where the Union army lost, and Jefferson Davis replaced Lincoln as president.' We knew we had a winner."
Davies said CBS also seriously considered another alternate-reality series called The Man In The High Castle In The Outback, in which 12 women would compete for the love of a Jewish man hiding in Australia under an assumed name because the Allies lost WWII to Nazi Germany. Ultimately, executives deemed the scenario less likely to engage the average American viewer than the post-Civil-War alternate reality.
Scouts chose a tropical location after they failed to find an island in the Mississippi River with enough land mass to sustain the manufacturing-based economy of a country that did not begin its transition from an agricultural society to a modern industrial society until the early 1900s.
"It's a totally new and exciting location," Davies said. "Our 12 strangers must adapt to the altogether-unfamiliar territory of an island where the states and the people are guaranteed those rights not specifically delegated to the federal government!"
Contestant auditions for Antebellum Island were held in Washington, DC, and Richmond, VA. Interviewees were asked such questions as: "Do you consider yourself fun-loving and up for new challenges?" "Do you believe women should be given the vote?" and "Do you reckon Dred Scott shoulda been hung from the highest tree?"
"We have a good mix of people for our first cast—all colors and creeds," Davies said. "On this show, as you might imagine, diversity is especially crucial. We plan to break the participants into two 'families,' the Masons and the Dixons."
"In casting the show, we looked for people who displayed adaptability, good judgment, and impeccable hospitality," Davies said. "But we wanted to let the contestants' personalities shape the show. We didn't just look to fill the typical slots: plantation owner, houseboy, carpetbagger, and Uncle Tom."
Executives were reluctant to reveal the themes for Antebellum's weekly competitions, but said contests might include skeet shooting, quilting bees, formal-dress cotillions, and working at a textile factory on the west side of the island for the entire show's duration with no chance at the $1 million prize.
Davies said the show's first episode will feature an adventure-filled whitewater-rafting trip, in which one team will attempt to make it to the "New Orleans Checkpoint," while the other will try to stop it from meeting up with the British ships in port and demanding asylum.
"We've thought a lot about how contestants should be kicked off the island," Davies said. "The voting thing has been done to death, and anyway, on our island, voting is a very touchy subject. Right now, we're toying with allowing cast members to just escape to the North. But it might be neat to choreograph some sort of mad uprising for the final episode. Whatever we do, you can bet it'll be exciting, tension-filled, and consistent with an America where slavery and states' rights survived long after the 1860s."