In 1997, the most popular program on Russian TV was The Intercept – a game show that pitted real-life car thieves against real-life police officers in an attempt to see if the criminals could avoid being caught by the authorities after stealing a car.
The rules were simple: contestants were given the keys to a car and a short head start. Minutes later, the police would set off in pursuit of the stolen vehicle – a task made easier by the fact that their target car had a GPS tracker installed. If the thieves could successfully avoid being caught for 35 minutes, they got to keep the car – a brand new Daewoo Espero.
On the other hand, if the criminals failed to outrun the law they were in for quite a punishment, even by Russia’s violent standards. While they would avoid being arrested, the policemen participating would give them a savage beating on camera, leaving many failed thieves with bruised ribs and some even requiring medical attention. At its peak during the show’s second season in 1998 The Intercept was pulling in millions of viewers every night.
Most of the car thieves failed in their bids to win the car – it turns out that The Intercept was actually created by senior officers in the Russian police force. With the rate of car theft growing rapidly in the mid 90s, the authorities were desperate for a way to discourage young would-be thieves from stealing vehicles. By ensuring the majority of contestants on The Intercept failed in their attempts, and were punished with a humiliating beating broadcast to millions, the police hoped it would deter juveniles from a life of crime.
Unfortunately, it appears the show had almost the opposite effect. The audience were delighted with the few criminals that succeeded in their attempts to evade police, and this is in large part to the creative escape methods used.
One of the most memorable episodes involved the car thief stashing the stolen vehicle in a railroad car just before the train left the station. He wasn’t caught within the 35 minute window and got to keep the car.
Another popular escape involved the thief driving onto a raft and floating onto the middle of a lake. He lasted for 35 minutes as the helpless cops looked on from the shore, but ultimately he failed to claim the prize after the raft tipped over and it sank to the bottom.
Other attempts were even less successful: one thief tried painting his car a different color, only for the police to catch him easily using the GPS tracker. On another episode, a real police car that wasn’t involved in the show apprehended the thief after receiving reports of a car driving erratically through Moscow.
Despite the incredible ratings (at its peak over 60 million viewers were tuning in) the show failed to achieve the goal of discouraging the youth of Russia from stealing cars. As a result, the show was not renewed for a third season.
There may be some good news for fans of The Intercept, however, with reports that a new series is being considered by a Russian TV channel. According to a story by a Moscow newspaper, the rights to The Intercept have been acquired by NTV, with plans for a new season to be filmed and broadcast as early as September this year.
There’s no word yet on the format of the new series, but fans are optimistic it will be as entertaining as the original. In a sign that the producers may make things easier for the would-be thieves, the new show apparently won’t have any involvement from official police, with stand-ins hired instead to play the part of law enforcement.
One thing is for sure: car theft remains a serious problem in Russia – the most recent data from 2013 reveals over 150,000 vehicles were stolen that year, and the long-term trend has shown no sign of slowing down. With this in mind, it’s unlikely the planned reboot of The Intercept will receive a warm reception from Russia’s authorities.