In many different countries all over the world, reality television evokes images of telegenic contestants battling each other on a tropical island or engaged in trysts at a seaside mansion. Thailand's prime minister is pioneering a new style of reality TV, being a main hero himself, and aired on the network his family controls.
"Backstage Show: The Prime Minister," which runs through Friday, features Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on a five-day tour through one of the poorest regions of Thailand. His government bills the show as an opportunity for the prime minister to meet the needy and tackle poverty as the nation watches him work.
Skeptics and there are many have assailed the show as a publicity stunt by the tycoon-turned-politician to boost his popularity at taxpayers' expense.
Opposition politicians, academics and the country's newspapers have heaped criticism on the show, which has the billionaire politician sleeping in a tent between visits to villages in the northeastern province of Roi Et, where the average monthly income is about 2,700 baht (US$68; euro55).
Thaksin has responded, on air, by saying in his typical blunt fashion that some of the recent headlines "suck" and should be more constructive.
"Thaksin begins his circus in At Samat," blared The Nation newspaper's front page Tuesday, referring to the first stop on Thaksin's tour.
Trailed by 40 cameras and a military helicopter, Thaksin's reality show is not exactly exhilarating television.
It follows the prime minister to provincial meeting halls for lengthy talks with local officials on poverty eradication. Continual footage shows a smiling Thaksin plunging into enthusiastic throngs of villagers, doling out cash and promises of bank loans or use of state land for poor farmers.
"This is trademark Thaksin. He's a showman and he's very good at it," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who writes regularly about national politics. "He's been up against a wall, he's got protests on all sides, his political standing has slipped. This is redirecting attention to where his strength is."
Thaksin was re-elected in a landslide victory early last year, stemming in large part from his populist policies to deliver money into the hands of Thailand's poor rural majority. But his popularity has sharply declined among Bangkok's political elite.
One of Thailand's richest men, Thaksin is battling accusations of corruption and cronyism. Critics accuse him of mixing his family telecommunications empire with affairs of state and mishandling a bloody Muslim ins urgency in the south.
Since taking office in 2001, Thaksin has attempted to muzzle the media through lawsuits and the closure of radio and TV programs that criticize him.
"This is another example of Thaksin manipulating the media," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor at The Nation newspaper and former head of the Thai Journalist Association. "He does not want to confront the political reality. So, he's creating his own so-called reality show and turning it into the news of the day. It's another desperate attempt to control the news."
Viewers can watch the show on two channels. The country's dominant pay TV operator, United Broadcasting Corp., is beaming the show live through iPSTAR satellites, owned by a unit of Shin Corp., which the prime minister's family controls. Excerpts of the show are also being carried on iTV, which is a unit of Shin.
Opinion pages have been full of outrage.
"Welcome to the first television reality show of its kind on Earth, featuring a national leader," Jeerawat Na Thalang wrote in The Nation. "Unlike all other reality shows, you will only see what he wants you to see. And the bad news is, you can't vote him out", reports the AP.