REALITY TV HAS come a long way since the days of Jerry Springer's talk show, when the hopeless and self-deluded were paraded in front of the cameras to air their dirty laundry. Having since dispensed with the pretence that contestants are there for self-betterment as opposed to simply whoring themselves for fame, the ante for 'real life' challenges on TV has been upped considerably. Germany's plans for a new version of Big Brother, for example, raise a bevy of philosophical questions. Mimicking the concept behind The Truman Show, it will apparently feature a small town, a forest, a town square complete with shops, a church tower, schools and businesses. The somewhat ambitious hope is that contestants will live there for years - going to work, getting married and sending their children to school. Elsewhere, a decidedly sadistic South Korean show puts competitors in a military biochemical warfare exercise room, forcing them to inhale near toxic tear-gas and stand barefoot on an ice-cold floor, while being hit over the head. The time when reality TV eats itself, however, may have arrived. Tonight sees the Hong Kong debut of Reel Race, the Discovery Channel's latest take on the genre. Its twist: contestants are getting in front of the camera in the hope of ensuring a career behind it. As well as an audiovisual package from Samsung being up for grabs, the winner will be given a production stint at Discovery Channel. Grace Phan hosts. 'They're auditioning now for a career that will hopefully last a lifetime,' says Michael McKay, the show's Australian producer. 'They're getting exposure by being in front of the camera so that the industry can see what they're capable of doing behind it.' Boiled down to its bare bones, Reel Race is a TV programme about people trying to make TV programmes. In the normal world this could potentially be impossibly dull viewing; instead, five budding filmmakers are dispatched around the world under tight budgets, even tighter deadlines and the worst possible conditions to produce, on their own, a five-minute documentary in two days, the quality of which will determine whether they stay or leave the show. Adela Ucar was one of the five contestants - or, as they're known on the show, 'Documakers'. 'I think reality TV has done really good things - you can see how people act and react naturally,' says the 24-year-old over the phone from her native Spain. 'But because of programmes such as Big Brother... I was afraid of how it was going to be on Reel Race. In the end everything was very professional and serious, so I never felt I was somewhere where I didn't want to be.' She and four others - from England, Thailand, the Netherlands and Australia - were selected from thousands of applications from film and TV students whose universities and colleges had been contacted by Discovery. Once chosen, they were then flown to Manila to be given a crash course in the equipment they were to be kitted out with. 'We wanted an interesting standard of documakers,' says McKay. 'The final five we selected had to send us a one-minute profile about themselves. We gave them next to no time to make it, on the basis that if they couldn't cut that, there was no chance they could cut it on the show.' From Manila the documakers were sent to various 'off the beaten track' locations, including destinations such as Hong Kong, Macau, Europe and India. Once there, they had to shoot, edit and voice a film either on a randomly selected topic, such as local cuisine or the natural environment, or one of their own choice, within two days. They also had to find their own food, accommodation and transport and then make it back to Manila airport and to the studio in time to deliver the completed reel - all on a budget of about US$100. The decision to base the show in Manila also provides it with its most tension-filled dynamic: the city is home to some of the most grid-locked, stress-inducing traffic conditions in the world. The very mention of this has producer McKay laughing a decidedly evil laugh. 'That was absolutely one of the major reasons why we chose Manila as the headquarters,' he says on the phone from London. 'One of the final twists in the tale is that traffic situation. There's a classic moment in one of the programmes when one of the documakers thinks that they've made it easily, but what they don't count on is that hideous Manila traffic. It gave us some very funny moments.' McKay says that the footage of the journeys to and from the airport would have made a good enough series on their own. 'We had to leave a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor, but all sorts of things were happening: cab drivers would drop the documakers at the wrong terminal and it was a seriously long way to the next one, or they'd get completely stuck on the wrong street, that sort of thing.' For the documakers themselves, it was the toughest part of the challenge. 'Manila was amazingly stressful,' says Ucar. 'There were some situations in which I felt like I was going to cry, because I hadn't finished my work, or the plane was delayed - you know, if it was something I couldn't control that could have eliminated me. The times when we were coming from the airport to the studio were the most stressful and dangerous than any other time on the show. We were all asking the taxi drivers to drive faster.' Despite throwing in such a seemingly cruel twist, McKay denies there were ever any times when he felt even the slightest pang of guilt for putting the contestants through such misery. 'We never set about doing something that was cruel like those reality shows - it's real but it's not manipulated,' he says. 'The assignments were picked at random; we never knew which one a documaker would take. So it wasn't cruel in that respect. 'It wasn't a case of finding out if someone didn't like snakes and then sending them to a snake farm.' Not that the challenges were tame, however. 'One of the most extreme things I did was a skydive in Australia,' says Ucar. 'In fact I'd always been afraid of flying, and doing this show involved lots of flying, so this was exciting and scary.' Despite the pressures of competing, Ucar says that she avoided the sort of dramatic meltdowns more familiar with established series such as Fear Factor or The Amazing Race. 'I never felt very pressured during the show, although I was concerned that everyone would be able to see whether I was doing a good or a bad job,' she says. 'You have to concentrate on doing the job well and not get stressed out, while never losing the perspective that you're doing something that is going to be broadcast. The show has taught me to control this situation a bit and I'd feel well prepared now if I was to make documentaries.' Indeed - after successfully working their way through such an ordeal, there must surely be the feeling that no one else producing documentaries for the Discovery Channel has had to come through such a harsh interview. 'Discovery Channel will have a very good person at the end of this season without a doubt,' says McKay. 'When we first talked to them about the series, someone asked 'How will we know if we've got a very good person?' My response was that you will have seen them work under the most intense pressure that you can imagine putting a young documentary-maker through. They will have edited in taxis, buses, in trains, on planes, in toilets - they will have voiced it and worked in an intense pressure cooker situation for weeks on end. 'And the viewer is along for the journey. Some of the documentaries were exceptionally good; at other times the documakers didn't make the most of their chances. But that's very much part and parcel of what the show's about.' Reel Race, co-produced with Octagon CSI, premieres on Discovery Channel today, 9pm. Repeated on Wed at 11am.