Twice a week, millions of viewers tune in to The Chat House, a new Indian reality TV series that blurs the boundaries between the virtual world and the real world. MTV-India jumped to air this pioneering format first, and it is gaining popularity fast.
The show is wholly Israeli made: the idea, the hardware technology and the software application. What’s more, it is being filmed just outside of Tel Aviv — the city dubbed as an international center of innovation (http://www.israel21c.org/briefs/wired-highlights-tel-aviv-start-ups).
“We’re all excited by this joint venture,” Gili Golan, co-creator and producer of The Chat House, tells ISRAEL21c. “This is the first time an Israeli company is producing a show in Israel for a foreign country.”
In a cross between Big Brother, a video game and a chat room, 15 beautiful, hip, young contestants vie for a bit of limelight by living under the eye of cameras 24 hours a day.
Whereas outrageous behavior and sexual attraction are usually the draws to reality TV, The Chat House relies on its original technology and format to keep viewers engaged.
“Indians cannot show sex or even a kiss on air,” says Golan. “If someone kisses we have to blur. We cannot show cursing either, but believe me the show is working. In a good format you don’t need these minor events to control the format. We’re not worried.”
And there’s another difference setting this apart from other shows in the genre: The Chat House is the first-ever reality program to mix real participants and virtual avatars.
“We’re shooting a real person but showing a virtual avatar,” says Erez Yerushalmi, founder and CEO of Smite Entertainment, the company responsible for the innovative software used on the show. “We are manifesting the movement and gestures of a real person through a three-dimensional avatar. This is the first time it’s ever been done on TV.”
An Israeli idea
The set on which the filming takes place looks like a mansion in India. But from the first episode — when the contestants’ flight lands at Ben-Gurion Airport to the Israeli flag on the screen and shots of Tel Aviv’s streets — viewers know they’re watching something created in Israel.
When Golan, the founder of Tanin Productions & Television, along with his brother, Adi, and the show’s co-creator, Harel Joseffson, first brainstormed the idea of bringing virtual reality to reality television, they had no idea it would be filmed on home turf.
Golan usually sells his format ideas to foreign television companies. In fact, it was at October’s MIPCOM TV and entertainment market exhibition in Cannes that MTV-India and Tanin Productions first shook hands.
“Tanin is a ‘think out of the box’ company. We don’t do a format like someone else; we do something new and innovative,” Golan says.
Golan’s idea for The Chat House was to make it like a game in which three main contestants – the Chat Masters – need to woo 12 other contenders — the avatars — to their side. But instead of speaking directly to the 12 contenders, the Chat Masters only “meet” them via their virtual beings.
“We’re making virtual relationships become real,” says Golan.
The Indian team was excited by the idea and launched it’s biggest-ever production, pouring $2 million into the glossy show.
“Transmedia storytelling is the only way to engage this wired generation. We experimented with Crunch and now we are doing it again with Chat House. Integrating three screens seamlessly will give viewers the window to connect with the show wherever, whenever. With MTV Chat House, we are turning the fundamentals of a reality show on its head. It is inclusion instead of elimination, because today, if you don’t have friends, you are nobody,” said Aditya Swamy, executive vice president of MTV-India.
There was just one catch: MTV-India wanted the creators to be on hand during the filming – but Golan and Joseffson both have young children and didn’t want to be away from home for three months. “Jokingly, I said they could come to Israel,” says Golan, “and after a budget check, they did.”
Some 100 crew, 15 participants and one VJ are now in Israel making television history.
“The Indians love Israel. They were not worried to come and they’re excited that they’re in Israel,” Golan tells ISRAEL21c. “They’re insisting that they go on a tour of Jerusalem after the show. I think I’ll need at least two buses.”
Israeli technology behind-the-scenes
The format of the new program was one thing. Turning it into a reality for TV was another.
The creators and producers knew about the radical 3D sensoring technology that has taken the gaming industry by storm. And they knew that at the head of the pack of innovators was Tel Aviv-based PrimeSense – with its 3D interactive sensor system that allows gamers to literally put themselves in the game.
The task of using PrimeSense’s hardware technology for Tanin’s format idea arrived on Smite Entertainment founder and CEO Erez Yerushalmi’s desk one month before The Chat House went on air.
“We took the challenge,” Yerushalmi tells ISRAEL21c. “This is not the same as [online virtual world] Second Life, where you’re controlling an avatar of how you see yourself. We’re walking the thin line between virtual and reality; people on this show are a digitalized self.”
On the show, the 12 contenders wear headsets and speak into depth-sensing cameras when chatting with the three masters. Their every move is recorded and shown via their avatars.
“We took these depth-cameras and developed software that enables the camera to shoot a real person in real time and whatever he does the avatar does in real time,” says Yerushalmi.
Fans have left positive comments about the show on MTV-India’s site.
“It’s more than saying Israeli technology is great. If you look at the layers of this phenomenon, all of it was made in Israel. Tanin wrote the TV format, the IT [PrimeSense] is based in Israel and the application, avatars and game format were done by Smite,” sums up Yerushalmi. “We completed a total experience — idea, technology, application.”
120 million viewers
The Chat House kicked off on November 25, and is set to run 60 days. The show is broadcast in Hindi but English is the language of communication on set.
Production figures are already impressive, with a reported 120 million viewers and three million “likes” on Facebook on the first day.
“In India, they’re very excited. They smell that it’s going to be a very successful show,” says Golan. “I think by the end of the show we can reach 20 million ‘likes.’”
With numerous other Israeli-made television formats now airing around the world — including Homeland (Showtime), In Treatment (HBO) and Traffic Light (Fox) — Golan says the secret to Israel’s success is its oomph.
“Israeli TV formats are not lazy. We work very hard because we’re a small country and we have to bring to the world something new, shocking, something that will attract attention,” says Golan, who has sold formats to some 70 countries.
Since The Chat House has been on MTV-India, interest around the world has spiked. Golan says his company has sold the same format to France, Germany, Turkey and Greece.
Says Golan: “You must bring something with a twist; otherwise you don’t have any chance to survive. That’s why Israelis are very successful now.”