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EXCLUSIVE: Inside CMT's New Reality Show, Popularity Contest

More than 250 townspeople are seated in folding chairs in the Oldham County Barn in Vega, Texas-population 936. A wall of hay bales adorned by red and white balloons is the backdrop for the stage at the front of the room. A "Vega Longhorns" sign hangs overhead. And someone is about to be sent packing. "Vega has voted and your time in town is up," declares Jonathan Torrens, host of CMT's Popularity Contest, premiering Monday, April 11, 10-11 p.m. ET/PT, then shifting April 15 to its regular time slot, every Friday from 8-9 p.m. ET/PT. "Take a moment to say goodbye to your friends. And, Sheriff . . . if you would." With that simple catchphrase-this show's version of "You're Fired" or "The Tribe Has Spoken"-it's time for Oldham County Sheriff David Medlin to escort one of the "city slicker" contestants not just out of the barn, but all the way out of town. There's a touch of sadness in the air. But it doesn't last long, because before the sheriff and his charge even hit the back of the room, Jonathan is already asking a young boy to draw a raffle ticket and read the number. "Number 878635," repeats Jonathan. "You, sir, way in the back. Is that you? Come on down and claim your bicycle." It's the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. A contestant's dreams of becoming the most popular person in town-and winning $50,000-have just crashed and burned, but, hey, someone wins a bike! Each city slicker was issued a gorgeous Schwinn-their sole mode of transportation-on their first day in town. When they go, the bikes are up for grabs. And so ends the premiere episode of the show that is breaking new ground not only in its overall "fish-out-of-water" concept, but in the way it's turned the townspeople into active show participants. Here's how it works: Ten young big-city dwellers from across America leave their homes and jobs to be deposited in very rural Vega-located along historic Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, about 40 miles from Amarillo. Among the city slickers are a chef, a professional cheerleader, an opera singer, a model, a psychic medium (wouldn't he know in advance if he were going to win?) and a major league baseball scout. The contestants immerse themselves in small-town life for 28 days, competing for numerous $1,000 prizes as they take on challenges- everything from scavenger hunts to a goat-milking contest. And they work on community projects as they get to know as many townspeople as possible. Contestants live with host families, and each contestant is shadowed around town by a TV crew that captures his or her experiences, for better or worse. There's a town meeting every three days where residents speak their minds about the contestants, then vote for their favorites. The one receiving the fewest votes gets the boot-and they get to see Vega's city limit sign from the backside. The last contestant standing at the end of the show gets the 50 grand, plus that winning contestant gets to give a matching $50,000 to the town resident of his or her choice. Not a bad incentive for the townspeople to put their best feet forward, too. But what's truly amazing about the show is that everyone in Vega signed a confidentiality agreement before shooting started, promising not to talk about what's going on in their town. In other words- What happens in Vega stays in Vega. And it has, from November when shooting was completed until now. "I knew they wouldn't tell," smiles Quincy Taylor, owner and editor of The Vega Enterprise newspaper. "People here are really people of their word. If they signed that confidentiality statement, they'll keep their mouth shut." After all, the people were a big factor in Vega's selection as the location of the show. "Vega was one of several towns visited throughout the country," continues Quincy. "They talked with people here, made their film clips to take back, then told the decision makers, 'OK, pick a town.' And they picked us." It was a good choice. Vega is quintessential small-town America, complete with one stoplight and the traditional, church-going family values that are talked about in a lot of places, but truly lived here. "Everybody knows everybody, and everybody's friendly," smiles Dot Leavitt, founder and owner of Dot's Mini- Museum-no charge to visit-located on Route 66. "We trust each other. You can leave your doors open if you want to. It's just a real good little town." And Vega truly is little. If you want groceries, you've got one option- Venture Foods. Want to eat out? It's the Hickory Inn Cafe, the Dairy Queen or Libby's Cafe. Or, you can get a rib-eye and onion rings at The Club, a cozy former gas station that's now a restaurant with one pool table, a bar and a jukebox that plays everything from Haggard to Pink Floyd. And want to go out for a beer? The Club is your only option in this otherwise "dry" community. Need horse shoes or plumbing supplies? Get 'em at Roark's. Want to register for your wedding? Roark's again. For most other things, point your car toward Amarillo and start driving. One of the contestants, Leyla, brought plenty of high heels, but no coat appropriate for a winter in Vega. She told her host, Cynthia Artho, that she was gonna get on her bicycle and ride to Wal-Mart to buy one. "I told her," grins Cynthia, " 'You better leave now-the nearest Wal-Mart is 40 miles away.' It was hilarious, because she is such a city girl, and she is precious. And I told her I didn't think she could live here, but I couldn't live in the city. Nothing's wrong about either place. That's just how we are. "She was pretty surprised that we didn't have a Wal-Mart." But no more surprised than a contestant who asked how to get to the doctor's office, and was told that the only option in town was the vet. Turn your head and . . . whinny. But those weren't the only surprises. Sheriff Medlin learned about the importance of having shots that are filmed "match" in the world of TV and movies. "There was one day we shot and had to go back and reshoot some the next day, " the sheriff recalls with a chuckle. "The shirt I wore in the shots was already in the dirty clothes. They had me dig that dirty shirt out so the footage would match." Welcome to show business, Sheriff. But, while this is definitely a television show, a side benefit of the interaction between the city slickers and the small-town residents has been the relationships that have formed and the mutual learning that's taken place. "I learned that you're a role model for little kids at all times," declares contestant Jose, a self-described ladies' man who was the subject of some serious rumors about a night in Amarillo. "The minute you slip up, they're gonna think that it's OK for them to do the same thing. So you've gotta be on your best behavior." "One of the reasons we became a host family," smiles Vega resident Patty Fairchild, "is that we had children about to go off to college-and they needed to know there are things and views out there in the world other than what we have right here. So our kids got to interact with people from big cities and learn about their lives and their cultures. "We found out that we're really not all that different. We have different experiences, but people are people. And, for the most part, I think all the contestants really had good, kind hearts." Now, the big question-are townspeople looking forward to seeing the show or dreading it? "Both!" laughs Quincy. "I think there are gonna be things I'm gonna regret having said on camera. But we are gonna have to laugh together about this. "If we don't, we're in trouble. But we can."

- David Scarlett