TV Gets Undressed

VH1’s Dating Naked is the latest stripped-down series to seduce viewers

Headshot of T.L. Stanley

To say that this wedding is unconventional doesn’t quite capture the essence of the nuptials of reality show contestants Ashley and Alika.

First off, the bride and groom met with the TV cameras rolling and decided to get hitched after just three months. Six other couples who are attending the wedding fell for each other under the same televised circumstances. A shaman presides over the ceremony, with backup from a chanting yogi and drum circle.

Nowhere in sight can one find the usual trappings—no flower girl, no ring bearer, no tulle or tuxedos. Boutonnieres are also in short supply—though bug spray could come in handy. Some of the invited guests are more anxious than even the happy couple—who, even if they don’t get cold feet, may well experience sunburn.

For you see, everybody here—the bride and groom, wedding party and guests—is butt naked.

Even if you haven’t been tuning into VH1’s summer hit Dating Naked—which has attracted more than 1 million viewers per episode and plenty of social buzz to boot—you might want to cue the DVR for television’s first all-nude wedding, airing Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. To be sure, it’ll be a spectacle not to be missed.

For the Viacom-owned basic cable channel, it was a no-brainer to film the union and televise it as an hour-long special, extending the series’ 10-episode run with what are likely to be big ratings. Along the way, VH1 will make TV history—and no doubt incense the morals-and-family-values crowd.

The wedding “felt like a natural spinoff special,” says VH1 president Tom Calderone, who calls Dating Naked “the most honest dating show on TV.”

“Witnessing a naked wedding is funny and outrageous enough, but it shows what happens when the stakes are that high,” he adds. “These people have met and dated naked, and this is a success story.”

Photo: Jeremy Goldberg

By all accounts, the bare-all union made for a joyous occasion, even if it was super awkward for the couple’s close friends and family members, who were forced to adhere to the clothing-not-optional rule along with the young, well-toned stars. “They looked confused, and they were definitely nervous,” says Dating Naked cast member Christina “Wee Wee” Porcelli, who met her boyfriend Joe Pappas on the show’s first episode. “Ashley’s grandmother wanted to come, but she just couldn’t wrap her head around the whole naked thing.”

VH1 isn’t the only network to feature people taking it all off in prime time. In fact, naked TV seems to be becoming a regular subgenre of reality programming, with the Discovery Channel’s adventure/survival series Naked and Afraid serving as the granddaddy of skin-baring fare.

Naked and Afraid

Discovery’s sister channel TLC has found its own solid performer in Buying Naked, which follows nudist house hunters in Florida. GSN recently debuted Skin Wars, hosted by Rebecca Romijn, which pits body painters and their nearly naked models against each other in a weekly competition. The program, which delivered the channel’s second-highest original premiere ratings ever, comes on the heels of a documentary-style series on Syfy about a body-painting business called Naked Vegas.

Naked Vegas

And in a first for broadcast TV, Fox was developing a series featuring contestants dating in the buff in front of a live studio audience. That project was dumped amid a leadership change at the broadcaster. And there’s little wonder why. An insider says the pilot had “overtones of a live sex show.” Apparently, there is still a line that cannot be crossed.

Meanwhile, TV executives say they are getting a steady stream of pitches for naked reality shows, as Hollywood looks to ride the current wave of series that push the envelope by baring bare bums.

In some ways, such shows could be seen as mimicking their scripted counterparts that are sporting more sexually explicit storylines and revealing more skin and sex than ever before. Premium cable channels like Cinemax led the way, with HBO, Showtime and Starz catching up in (over)exposed flesh with series like Game of Thrones, Masters of Sex, Spartacus and Girls.

Basic cable has followed suit when it comes to the birthday suit with adult-themed dramas like Syfy’s Dominion, FX’s The Americans, USA’s Satisfaction and TNT’s Murder in the First featuring copious amounts of uncovered skin. Meanwhile, pixilation on network TV has never been so prevalent, according to conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council, with blurred body parts in numerous shows airing as early as 8 p.m., formerly known as the family hour.

It seems only a matter of time, then, that unscripted shows would drop trou—especially considering that TV viewers have become accustomed to the production, control and spin involved in the typical reality show where high-drama events are staged, catfights are stoked, and situations are manipulated for maximum effect, says trendspotter Maude Standish.

It’s all left the audience searching for a deeper level of authenticity, she says—at the same time, noting that even in our oversharing society, people still carefully edit their public personas. “We know that who a person is on Instagram isn’t who they actually are,” says Standish, co-founder of Tarot, a millennial trend insights company. “We want to see real as real can be. If people are naked on a TV show, there’s nothing they can hide physically. That allows us to get as close as possible. We’re seeing a real person be her real self. I can identify with that. It’s extreme, and it’s interesting to watch.”

Critics like the PTC, on the other hand, call it gratuitous and shameful, while cable network executives take pains to defend their shows’ pixilated privates as essential to the storytelling. (Butts, it should be pointed out, are often fair game for the camera nowadays, with only genitals and breasts getting the digitally scrambled treatment.)

Calderone notes that the pitch for Dating Naked was appealingly simple and straightforward, even though he predicted that the logistics could be a nightmare. So much pixilation, he points out, needs to be “surgical.”

Buying Naked

“At its core, it’s a very sweet, fun, silly dating show,” he adds of the series in which there seems to be less hooking up than on an average episode of ABC’s The Bachelor. “The conceit is that everyone’s naked, but after a few minutes you have to make sure the characters are fun and the level of romance and intrigue is there to make an incredible hour of programming,” Calderone says.

Photo: Jeremy Goldberg

Dating Naked touts itself as a “radical social experiment,” though Calderone admits that neither Dr. Drew nor any other pop psychologist analyzes the contestants, their body language or their choices. Still, it breaks down barriers between the sexes, he contends, as the hot young things zipline, go horseback riding, dance and drink in the altogether. “You are truly exposed,” he says. “It brings up the issue of how you would act if you really had your guard down.”

It’s that stripped and vulnerable feeling for which the producers of Discovery’s Naked and Afraid also strive. The series, which will air original episodes through September, dumps two naked strangers, a man and woman, into a remote, exotic environment, each with a single tool, where they must survive for 21 days. Making fires, building shelter and finding water are among their priorities rather than enjoying “alone time,” as executive producer Jay Renfroe points out.

While it could have been Partially Clad and Afraid, the full-on nudity adds another entire layer of hardship, Renfroe explains.

“It’s not enough to take away their cellphones and makeup—we take everything away,” he says. “We all know that we’re reliant and used to the creature comforts of the modern world, and we’ve gone soft. But what if all that was gone? Would we have the skills to survive? Could we gut it out?”

The concept of Adam and Eve as the first survivalists came from executives at Discovery, according to Renfroe, and his production company, Renegade 83, ran with the idea. Having no clothes to shield the participants from the weather, bugs and predators was always an “organic” part of the equation, he adds.

Producers pair contestants according to their complementary skills, not according to whether they might make a love connection. As it happens, there hasn’t been a single romance to blossom among the castaways, meaning that viewers expecting to be titillated by sex in the brush have been sorely disappointed. (Huddling together to warm up doesn’t count.)

Best known for its traditional shiny-floor game shows, GSN wanted to latch onto the body painting rather than the naked TV trend with its Skin Wars. With a spike in public interest in the art form, executives at the network say they set out to “gameify” it with a challenge show, which quickly spawned a YouTube offshoot called Skin Wars: The Naked Truth.

Skin Wars

The near-nakedness is an important element in creating the ultimate human canvas, notes GSN evp of programming Amy Introcaso-Davis—but it’s not meant to be lurid.

“There’s no attempt to deemphasize the sexiness of it, but it’s about the artistry and the skill, not the raciness,” she explains.

Nor was the proverbial peek inside the kimono the point of TLC’s Buying Naked, according to the channel’s executive vice president of development and production, Howard Lee. Instead, it was access to a little-known subculture—nudists on Florida’s Gulf Coast—that piqued the network’s interest and perfectly complemented its oddball series about Amish youngsters, polygamists, Southern rednecks and army-size families.

“We were not looking for a nude show,” says Lee. “And this isn’t about dating or finding love. It’s a small world that already exists, and we’re getting a deeper understanding of it.” The executive ordered the series after two ratings-winning half-hour specials centered around real estate agent to the naked Jackie Youngblood. Audiences have continued to tune in, and Lee says he’s heard little in the way of viewer complaints.

How much of a future does the showing-us-everything genre really have?

While certainly getting a lot of media attention and some interest among viewers, it bears mentioning that none of these naked-centric shows has hit the level of success of such basic cable phenomena as A&E’s Duck Dynasty and History’s Pawn Stars.

Meanwhile, the ever-vigilant PTC has these shows in its sights, predictably. The group’s president Tim Winter objects not only to the idea of naked TV—which he calls an attempt to “pander, shock and titillate”—but also to repeated airings at all hours, including daytime.

“You can see these shows morning, noon and night,” he complains. “And the networks have determined that they’re appropriate for kids as young as 14 with a TV-14 label. That’s outrageous to me.”

Dating Naked

The PTC has used naked shows to intensify its lobbying efforts in Washington for á la carte cable, which would allow consumers to opt out of networks they consider objectionable or simply don’t want.

Continuing its well-worn path of following the dollar, the PTC is in talks with numerous advertisers whose commercials air during programs like Dating Naked.

Winter doesn’t take credit for the move but does get a measure of satisfaction from the fact that McDonald’s and Pepsi no longer sponsor Dating Naked. Meanwhile, marketers like Taco Bell, Domino’s, Clearasil and Lysol have remained loyal sponsors.

“If the ad dollars go away, so will the content,” Winter believes. “Anyway, it should be on a subscriber basis only—those who don’t want that programming don’t have to underwrite it. Let those 1 million people who watch these shows pay for them.”

Photo: Jeremy Goldberg

Perhaps we should have seen this trend coming, as networks are forever pushing the envelope. Then, as Lisa Herdman, svp, director of national programming and branded entertainment at agency RPA, points out, a whole slate of programs with “naked” in their titles has cropped up in recent years—among them, Oxygen’s Naked Josh, BBC’s Naked Chef, TruTV’s Naked Office and ABC’s TV movie Naked Hotel—never mind that they didn’t actually feature nudity.

While nudity may be seen as a “quick fix” in the search for ratings, Herdman says, there is no shortage of advertisers lining up to support them. Such programming is brand specific, with edgier, younger-skewing sponsors being the most likely to bite. And yet, there are more conservative viewers and advertisers—and the good old PTC—with which to contend.

Standish sees such contradictions not only in the entertainment business but also in the broader society. There’s our ingrained prudishness on the one hand and the pornification of pop culture on the other.

“We’re starting to see people comfortable with certain levels of nudity—naked backs, cut-outs, sheer fabric, side boob,” she says. “We’re not wearing see-through plastic, but everything is so transparent we might as well show it all anyway. And yet there are still these deeply embedded conservative roots among the older population.

“Their kids, meanwhile, are sending naked pictures of themselves to their boyfriends,” she adds. “That’s why all this is captivating our attention now.”

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.