Getting to No: Contestants negotiate for $1.5 million in new reality show "Unan1mous"

New reality show pits contestants against each other in negotiation over $1.5 million.Those who monitor treatments of negotiation and conflict resolution in popular culture (and who have strong stomachs) may want to tune in to Unan1mous, a U.S. reality television show now in its third week at Fox Broadcasting, and which the Washington Post has amusingly dubbed a “Zero Fun Game“.

(By the way, that’s not a typo you’re seeing—like the CBS series “Numb3rs” or the cheesy Brad Pitt flick, “Se7en”, “Unan1mous” follows the entertainment world trend to replace perfectly good letters with numbers in film and television titles–as much of an annoyance to type as they are to read).

The basic premise is this: nine individuals, sealed inside a windowless underground bunker, must make a single decision–to unanimously select one of themselves to receive $1.5 million.

Although the voiceover on the first episode melodramatically describes this as “a social experiment that will spiral completely out of control,” it is at bottom nothing more than a badly played negotiation game.

Contestants include a truck driver, a minister who runs an e-commerce business when she’s not preaching, a professional poker player, a human resources professional, a choreographer, a self-described “soccer mom”, a handbag designer, a real estate sales rep, and a “42 year old Temp Worker” (evidently a TV synonym for “loser”).

Each of these players must try to convince all the others that he or she should receive the prize money. Once the group reaches a unanimous decision, all the contestants are free to leave their captivity. If any of them leaves before a unanimous decision is reached, the prize money is instantly reduced by half.

We see the contestants use time-honored (and ineffective) strategies straight out of traditional, distributive bargaining–argument, persuasion, deception, appeals to sympathy, cultivation or subversion of alliances, and intimidation (this marks the first time I’ve heard eternal damnation invoked as a threat in a negotiation).

Tempers of course flare, and contestants begin behaving badly in predictable ways. Out of earshot of the others, some of them begin to reveal their true selves to the camera. On episode one, we hear the following confidences:

“My entire life is a game–but I play to win!” (the professional poker player)

“$1.5 million dollars is enough to make people lie, backstab, do whatever it takes. I know it is for me.” (the H.R. professional)

“What I tell the other people, what I don’t tell them, is very important. It’s like meeting a girl. You feed her a bunch of B.S. so you can bring her home [diabolical laughter].” (the real estate sales rep)

At the end of their first day of negotiations, the contestants not surprisingly fail to reach a unanimous decision. Consequences of course ensue, and the clock begins to run on the $1.5 million prize money, reducing it by a dollar for each second that passes until the contestants reach a unanimous decision at last. As of last night’s episode, the prize money had been reduced by more than half already, leaving just over $700,000.

Despite the utter ineffectiveness of the negotiation strategies they pursue, contestants are determinedly staying the course. An eternal optimist, I keep hoping that one of them will at some point turn to the others in a moment of inspiration and say, “Look, is there any way that all of us working together can beat the system and walk out of here with the prize money before it all disappears?” Surely cockroaches can’t be smarter than humans when it comes to problem solving.

However, at this point I’ve lost both interest and optimism–not to mention control over my family’s TV remote control device. You’ll just have to let me know how it all turns out.

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