Masterpiece: A Reality Show For Authors (Plus a Short, Sad, History of Similar Shows That Failed)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Literary feuds are entertaining: famous and not-so-famous authors holding grudges, slinging insults, or sabotaging one another with bad reviews (both anonymous and not).

But what about author feuding in real time? Can the spectacle of writers racing one another to finish a story, or competing to make the best elevator pitch, hold an audience riveted? Will viewers mourn as authortestants fall by the wayside, and cheer for the last author standing?

A new Italian reality show, Masterpiece, aims to find out. At stake: a deal with Italian publisher Bompiani, and an eye-popping first print run of 100,000. Here’s how it works.

Prospective contestants submit a manuscript of an unpublished novel – nearly 5,000 flooded the offices of “Masterpiece” when the call went out, according to the NYT. Readers select a dozen contestants for each of six episodes, which judges then winnow down to four hopefuls per show.

Each of the four contestants participates in some sort of event that is designed to inform his or her writing (for example, watching a wedding or spending a day with the blind), then return to the studio for the main event: a tension-fraught writing assignment. Writers sit at keyboards facing judges and tap out prose with their words projected on screens for the audience to see as a clock counts down. Time allotted for this assignment? A pressure-filled 30 minutes.

They then read their written assignments aloud to judges, who deliberate and dismiss two writers. The final competition is a 59-second elevator pitch to literary celebrities. A winner is chosen from each of six episodes, then finalists are gathered together for a final competition to determine who wins a book deal – and a good deal of celebrity.

Sounds like a major yawnfest to me. But then, I’m a writer, with an intimate personal knowledge of how boring writers are when they’re composing. (They’re actually much more interesting when they’re procrastinating–how about a show about that?) I’m thinking fancy sets and big screens and breathless show-host commentary are not going to be enough to generate audience enthusiasm for 30 minutes of writers writing.

Believe it or not, “Masterpiece” is not a new concept. Author reality shows have been tried several times, and every single one has failed. I’ve written about a bunch of them (I admit to a minor obsession!):

Book Millionaire. The brainchild of Lori Prokop, owner of her very own vanity press, this show was to feature “Eight people with dreams of seeing their book ideas become published and being the next author launched to best selling and celebrity status.” It never got beyond the video audition stage.

The Ultimate Author. Created by journalist and author Lauren Spicer, this show promised contestants “go[ing] toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content.” At least one show was taped, but there’s no sign it was ever broadcast.

American Book Factory. Four books were to be co-written by teams of authors “competing for what could turn into a major book deal.” This one never got beyond the announcement stage.

Healeth Publisher. In connection with an Internet TV company, Healeth promised a reality show competition “that will change the publishing game forever.” It never materialized.

Publish My Book! Proposed by Tony Cowell, Simon Cowell’s brother, this American Idol-style author reality show looked to have all the goods, but it fared no better than the rest. Announced for the summer of 2007, it never appeared.

The WRITE Stuff. Run by producer and events organizer Cyrus A. Webb, this show promised to feature 14 authors in “a contest that will challenge not only their creativity but their drive and determination to make it in the business.” Despite multi-city auditions, not a single episode ever aired.

Admittedly, except for Tony Cowell and Publish My Book!, none of these groups was very credible. Still, even though Masterpiece has the money and the logistics and the publisher participation that the dead shows lacked, it shares the same challenge: writers are really only interesting when they’re not writing.