Behind Geographic's Reality Series, Worlds Apart

By Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
April 23, 2003

The Palmers have just experienced reality—National Geographic-style. The suburban family of five from East Brunswick, New Jersey, went to live for nine days as members of the semi-nomadic Rendille tribe in the northeastern Kenyan desert. Their trials and triumphs were captured in the one-hour premiere of the National Geographic Channel's new 13-part reality series, Worlds Apart, which premiered April 13.

Why reality TV?

"National Geographic invented 'reality TV,' so to speak," said Andrew Wilk, the Channel's executive vice president of programming, production, and news, and an executive producer for the series. "Other programs—Survivor, Fear Factor are more like extreme game shows: contrived environments, competitions, prize money. We take people and offer them a truly geographic experience, one that lets them experience reality from an entirely different perspective."

John Bowman, an executive producer at the Channel, and series creators/ executive producers Glenda Hersch and Steven Weinstock from True Entertainment Productions, worked with Wilk to select the Palmers from a group of 50 families. "The father, Chris, had a long daily commute into Manhattan for his job; Susan's activities revolved around those of their three children—15-year-old Allie, 12-year-old Michael, and 8-year-old Jamie. We felt they typified a certain way of life here in the U.S.," Wilk explained.

The Palmers' story is told primarily in their own voices, and those of their host family, the Orgubas. "We used voice-overs only in a few instances to maintain clarity. The show really unfolds in a very natural way," said Wilk. "Each of the Palmers undergoes a catharsis, which is truly inspiring to witness. And the boys in particular speak from the heart—almost everything out of their mouths could be a sound bite!"

Over the course of their stay with the Orgubas, the Palmers confront topics universal to the human experience: personal responsibility, parent-child relationships, community. The contrast between their way of living versus that of the Rendille tribe is startling for the Palmers—and, ultimately, enlightening.

The selection of the first location for Worlds Apart hinged on inspiring landscapes and ease of communication. "We chose Kenya because of its great beauty, and the Rendille because they speak English as a second language," said Wilk. "The Orgubas were the perfect hosts—warm, gracious, and supportive all throughout the Palmers' time there. In fact, the two families still keep in touch."

Plans for 12 more shows are in the works, with locations to be scattered across the globe. Interested families can apply online to be participants.

"It's really amazing to me that on day two, all of the Palmers were ready to go home. Yet by the last night, no one was," remarked Wilk. "The family leaves realizing that these people, the Rendille, live full, rich, and complete lives—without all the things they thought of as 'necessities.' It's a wonderful transformation to witness."

Evidently, Susan Palmer agrees. "The question that weighs on my mind is, what do you do with the knowledge? Do you just take it home and say, 'I was lucky enough to be born where I was' or do you think about how you can effect change? So I have to do that!"

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