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Verizon gets into reality show game with ‘The Runner’

REUTERS/Phil Klein
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have cut a deal with Verizon to show “The Runner” on its proprietary go90 app.

Twice a year, much of the TV industry and the writers who cover it meet in Los Angeles to present the casts of new shows, hear reassurances for old shows, and do a lot of schmoozing. Having attended more than a dozen of these “press tours” I can assert three things with certainty.

1. The industry people are both better dressed and hold their (free) liquor better than the press.

2. There is an unlimited supply of chiseled dudes with perfect four-­day stubble and petite blonde starlets in black cocktail dresses.

3. The number of show ideas that register as truly imaginative or unique in any way is about as rare as a pedestrian on the 405.

But there was the afternoon back in 2000 when actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon showed up to hype a new reality show they had set to go on ABC. The idea was this: a contestant is set afoot in the real world with the goal of making it from, say, Miami to Seattle in 30 days, hitting prescribed waypoints, like for example, “a grocery store in Chattanooga,” without being detected by viewers following along at home via the internet. Those people could win cash money by figuring out where the contestant was and “apprehending” him or her.

As Affleck and Damon explained it, the contestant would have to move as surreptitiously and as “off the grid” as possible, using false identities and disguises to avoid detection. Underwhelmed at the thought of yet another summer of “Big Brother” I thought, that’s cool.

Which it was … until 9/11 got everyone, including nervous TV network executives, a little fretful about public reaction to a mysterious “mole-­like” character worming around Main Street USA. And the idea faded away.

Until now.

Eight or ten generations of social media later, Affleck and Damon have cut a deal with cell phone carrier Verizon for “The Runner.” It’s essentially the same idea as their initial effort, but this time with teams of physical pursuers mixed into the action. (The genesis of the idea is the Stephen King novel, “The Running Man,” later turned into an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The key difference being that the object here is not to kill the contestant.) At stake is a $1 million prize to the successful contestant or the chase team that brings him or her down.

Given our near-­total connectivity ­­via GPS-­enabled apps on our phones — and that our credit card data is instantly collected and shared — the test of whether anyone who is being actively pursued can truly disappear or go “off the grid” in 2016 America is interesting on the face of it. Add in the incentive for tech-­heads, hackers and obsessive amateur detectives to locate the contestant and you could have the makings of a momentary national obsession, one arguably more edifying than Donald Trump.

All this may sound familiar to readers of Wired magazine, which several years ago recounted ​the experience one of their writers had​ in trying to elude cyber detection. It’s one thing to hunker down in a cave, but something else entirely if you’re committed to a semblance of normal activity, especially travel, without registering on any kind of monitoring technology.

It may have registered with you that Verizon is not a TV network. “The Runner,” at least at first, will not play out your television screen. The contest has been reconfigured via an app, Verizon’s proprietary go90. (The name is a suggestion to smartphone users that they turn their devices 90 degrees and view video … horizontally. Don’t get me going on the crowd forever recording video vertically. I ask you, when was the last time you saw a movie in a vertical format?)

Verizon’s bet is that “The Runner,” with Affleck and Damon’s star power, will jump start a fresh revenue stream. (The app is free and ad­-supported).

The way the game is conceived, viewers will be very much part of the chase, with the ability  to play along on go90 in real time wherever they are (like sloughing off at work). If they can detect a trace of the contestant, they can connect directly with the chase teams, winning as I say, real money if a capture results. Producers say real­time video updates will be released — on go90 — every day the chase is on.

According to the Hollywood Reporter casting has begun and “The Runner” is scheduled to launch this summer.

If you find the whole concept a bit Orwellian, consider that it may serve as an object lesson in how little privacy we actually have, or that at the very least it is less of a sucker’s bet than ​FanDuel.

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