Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer version of reality TV transfixes Kingdom's youth

Khmer version of reality TV transfixes Kingdom's youth

Khmer version of reality TV transfixes Kingdom's youth


An amalgamation of American Idol and Big Brother, Cambodia’s Cellcard Star features contestants who advocate good will and moral virtue

Photo by:

Sovann Philong

Cellcard Star finalists Neov Ratanak (second from left); Sorn Kayady (centre), who was voted out of the

competition on Sunday; and Nheim Sokhonthear (second from right) .

Wholesome values are not a selling point of reality TV in the West. Quarantine a bunch of randy young people, provide them with an endless supply of booze, make them compete for fame and money, and sit back and watch the ratings soar, the production logic seems to go. However, the most recent Cambodian take on reality TV, which has transfixed the Kingdom's youth, is a distinct contrast to the likes of Big Brother, Temptation Island and The Bachelor.

An amalgamation of American Idol and Big Brother, in which audiences vote for contestants via SMS, MyTV's Cellcard Star is modelled on Mexico's La Academia and is the Kingdom's first house-based reality TV program. After 12 weeks on air, the local adaptation of this global franchise could see tens of thousands of viewers on the edge of their sofas as the two remaining contenders vie for US$2,500 in this weekend's grand finale.  

"For such a new network, the program was a big risk," said MyTV Executive Producer Aaron Leverton. But it seems Cambodians have embraced this novel format. "We've gone from having to explain to people what the show was, to turning hundreds of people away from Chanla Studios every Sunday."

However, it is not the manufactured debauchery characteristic of Western reality TV that has drawn viewers en masse to Cellcard Star. Rather than efforts to flaunt sexuality and alcoholism, it seems that it is the moral rectitude of finalists Nheim Sokhonthear and Neov Ratanak that has won viewers' loyalty.   

"As a traditional Khmer girl, it's important to be able to conduct myself in a good way," 24-year-old Nheim Sokhonthear told The Post Monday on the program's live weekly two-hour in-house broadcast. "Women should keep their behaviour honourable, avoid drugs and think about their reputation and that of their family," said the former garment factory worker-turned-celebrity who lists housework as one of her favourite activities.

Young people should never do

anything that's

illegal or harmful.

While her 21-year-old rival appears to prefer reading to domestic upkeep, he is equally keen to promote upstanding morals. "Young people should never do anything that's illegal or harmful to themselves or to society," said Neov Ratanak.

So if not unadulterated hedonism, what message would these candidates hope to instill in young Cambodians as the nation's idols?

"As a role model, I will keep the good character and personality that I've shown in the house," said Nheim Sokhonthear. "Even though my life has changed completely, I'm still friendly and polite to all my friends and family and all the fans who've supported me."

Neov Ratanak was quick to advise youth to think about their future. "It is your own to create, and only you can decide whether it's good or bad. You should try to satisfy your parents and create your future to be bright and successful."

And it would seem this diligence and virtue has paid off in the high promise of success for both the pair's futures - not to mention that of MyTV.

"The program has done for the contestants exactly what we hoped it would," said Cellcard Star's executive producer, Matthew Robinson. "As well as great educational outcomes in maths classes we've given them in the house, we've seen a fantastic blossoming of confidence and personality in self-development classes," he said. "They've been confronted with great adversity, disappointment, loneliness, excitement and happiness, a range of emotions that most adults don't experience until they're thirty."

Far from responding to these challenges with catfights, contestants have impressed Robinson with their maturity. "They've all been really supportive and cooperative to one another and as a result, they've formed tremendous friendships and been genuinely sad when someone's left," he said.

And so, it seems that despite the program's imported format, producers wish to retain the Khmer firmly in their pop idol. "Both the finalists make such great role models because they combine the best elements of modern young people with traditional Cambodians," said Robinson.

So could this Cambodian model of good will and restraint provide the missing ingredient in Europe's next big reality TV hit? Perhaps not, but it could certainly lighten the load of more than a few overburdened content censors around the world.

The Cellcard Star grand finale airs on MyTV this Sunday at 2pm.


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