While competing for fame and glory, contestants also learn skills that will help them better navigate the employment market awaiting the losers
Photo by: Sovann Philong
Cellcard Star contestants Lay Sovanarin (left) and Im Somana are among 12 cast members vying for a prize of $2,500 and a shot at national fame.
Nestled in a Phnom Penh housing estate are 12 young adults vying to become Cambodia's next singing phenomenon.
But unlike any other house in the city, these tenants' futures are in the hands of the nation.
Following in the wake of numerous reality shows - The Pizza House and Coffee Shop - comes Cambodia's first house-based reality show, Cellcard Star, and Executive Producer Aaron Leverton says the show is a risk for MYTV.
"We are trying to create something really positive," he said.
Based on the Mexican show La Academia, Cambodia is the sixth country after Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the United States and Azerbaijan to produce a local version of the global franchise.
For 12 weeks, contestants - all vying for the US$2,500 cash prize - perform live on a Sunday night, and after a weeklong voting period, one person is eliminated each week.
Like many reality shows, contestants have limited contact with the outside world, with a daily trip to the market being the only human interaction they get outside the house.
[MYTV’S] AIM IS TO PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE TO WHAT IS ALREADY AVAILABLE ON TV.
But this show separates itself from others by allowing students to continue their schooling through night classes.
"It would be hypocritical of us to stop them from going to school," Leverton said.
"Education is very important, especially in a developing country, so we allow a couple of students who are still studying to keep going."
Contestants take it in turns to complete household chores in between classes in cosmetics, cooking and fitness.
But one class that stands apart from the typical reality TV mould is "professional skills", which sees contestants trained in skills ranging from CV writing and interview techniques to goal-setting and how to be an effective leader. It is these master classes that MYTV General Manager Glen Felgate says make the show more than just a singing competition.
"We also want to take the opportunity to teach those who might not make it as a singer some new skills," he said.
Co-executive producer and professional skills teacher Tanner Ellsworth agrees, saying it is essential the contestants are prepared to face the harsh realities of the music industry.
But he appreciates the contradiction between his teachings and the nature of a reality TV show.
"There is a subtle irony in my class because each week someone will be voted off the show, and they will have to get another job or find something else to do," he said.
"So hopefully, I will be able to teach them something while they are here that will help them get a job in the future."
Twelve fixed cameras and one roving through the house ensure the nation's viewers don't miss any of the action.
But unlike many Western shows, cultural sensitivities have required that males and females not only have separate bedrooms and bathrooms, but that there are also camera-free zones.
Screening live six hours a day, plus another two hours of daily highlights, Cellcard Star is the centrepiece around which the MYTV lineup has been built - the show debuted when the channel first started broadcasting.
But Felgate says both will be reviewed independently, with the success or failure of one having no impact on the other.
"[MYTV's] aim is to provide an alternative to what is already available on TV. If it can achieve that, then it is a success," he said.
With the first elimination taking place last night, Felgate says the coming weeks will give an insight into how Cambodia is responding to the show.
"[This] week is quite a crucial week because, by then, our first contestant would have left the show and the contestants and the audience will start to realise that this is actually a real competition," he said.
But irrespective of how the show is received, Lay Sovanarin, a 21-year-old IT graduate, says ratings and the competitive nature of the show have no impact within the house.
"It's a very happy house, we are like brothers and sisters now. We only have a short time together, so we are trying to make the most of it," he said.
"Even if I go soon, I will be happy. I have made new friends and have had new experiences."