Take two very different families, switch out the wives for two weeks and see what happens. That's essentially the format of ABC's successful reality series "Wife Swap" that goes into season six tonight when the wives/mothers in the Cameron and Drago families trade places. What will the laid back Drago family do when hard-working Theresa comes in and wants to teach the kids how to earn their keep? And how does the Cameron family respond when Ro Drago brings a more loving attitude but also brings her eerily life-like baby dolls that she possibly gives more attention to than the real people in her life? A gamut of emotions from humor to tearful moments regularly abound in the series so our Jim Halterman rang up Executive Producer Mike Gamson to find out the origins of the show as well as just how the families are chosen to appear on the popular UK import.
Jim Halterman: How did the show come to the US and were there ever any confusion about what the 'swap' in the title would entail?
Mike Gamson: Originally the show was created in the UK with Stephen Lambert, who was with RDF at the time. The concept was thrown about at a meeting where they were looking to do a show where families head up against each other and find natural differences and someone threw out the idea of what if the wives swapped. I think everyone at the meeting was aghast and said 'You've got to be kidding!' And then it was 'No, they just swap and live in the same house. There's nothing more to it than that but experience each other's lives.'
It was developed from there, how it would work as a format and then you have the rule changes where obviously the wife gets the opportunity to change up the family that is not used to how she runs her household. She can bring in rules and hopefully she'll bring something in that is a benefit to the family and she can see that she can make a difference. That was in 2003. ABC picked it up and premiered it in 2004. When we premiered, we premiered on a Wednesday and it was an exciting time and we came along the same time that 'Lost' came along and 'Desperate Housewives' so it was an exciting time to be on ABC.
JH: Talk to me about the background checks and what the process is for checking out the family.
MG: Obviously, we take it hugely seriously. ABC has high standards as far as their background. In the beginning of the casting process, we have questions for the families and then it goes into a more intensive background interview. We also have background consultants who would investigate and look into the family's background. We also have psychologists who will meet the family and then they analyze the tests. They also do a visit with the family and furnish us with reports. There are various other steps along the way where we have to carefully look at each family and what's going on in their homes.
JH: Let's say the family passes all the tests, what really is it that gets them on the show. Is it personality? Quirkiness of the families?
MG: It's one of the hardest shows to cast and we've got a really fantastic casting department. Sometimes you look at someone like Ro who has a really interesting hobby but when you watch the show you can also see that she has a wonderful personality. She's fantastic. She's the kind of personality that even if she didn't have the hobby of babies we would still consider her for the show. It has to be personality but once you've got a family that makes you think 'Wow, they're really strong and compelling in their own right' then the next step is to find another family that can match them and the mums from both those families can bring something to the other families.
JH: Are you primarily looking for opposite types of families or does it go deeper than that?
MG: We want to have more depth than just people turning up and criticizing each other's lives. That's not going to be particularly interesting. If they can bring something where we say 'Oh, there's something that the mum can bring something to the other family and she can bring some real change, which is positive change,' then that is something we look at and hope that it's going to happen during the swap.
JH: What do the wives know about the other family before they step into the new home?
MG: They know absolutely nothing! That's why even when they pull up to the door, it's the first time they're seeing the house and they're always working out [in their mind] the kind of family they are when they walk in for the first time. They get more information about the family when they read the family manual. The first time we film them meeting the family is when they actually meet them. They don't even know where they're going.
JH: In the season premiere, things get a little heated between Ro and Dave, the father in the family she's put with. Have things ever gotten too heated and you have had to step in?
MG: Everyone is told boundaries in advance and they're aware of that. If it did look as though any boundaries would be crossed we would step in.
JH: Has anyone not made it the full two weeks and had to bail out?
MG: I know there was one show in England where it lasted three days but it still made for a very good show.
JH: Is there always a positive outcome to the swaps?
MG: What we hope is that something positive happens because it makes the show far more satisfying if people do learn from each other during the process. There are occasions where they reach in impasse and they simply don't see eye to eye and will never see eye to eye.
JH: There were some unexpectedly touching moments such as when Ro hears Dave talk about how his father never told him he loved him. Does that surprise you when those heavy moments come?
MG: Ro is a perfect 'Wife Swap' Mom because she's such a caring Mom. She genuinely cares about the family and that's why it's extremely moving. Yes, these things do come out and this season there are a number of episodes where there are really touching breakthroughs. One Dad has a distant relationship with his son and there's a very emotional breakthrough where he realizes that he needs to pay more attention to his son. When that happens, that's what makes the show that much stronger.
"Wife Swap" airs Friday nights on ABC at 8:00/7:00c.