Just ask G.K. Chesterton. He once said, “A dead thing goes with the stream; only a living thing goes against it.”
Continuing the voyeuristic trend started by programs such as MTV's “Real World” and CBS’ “Survivor” are shows such as “Extreme Makeover,” “Are You Hot?” “Joe Millionaire,” “Celebrity Boot Camp” and on and on. To date, more than 50 “reality-based” television shows have either been produced or are in production.
Reality television is an oxymoron, and reality television has very little to do with real life.
For starters, the contestants on these programs are hardly “realistic.” They're more like celebrity wannabes. Past contestants have included ex-soft-porn stars and ex-cons.
One “American Idol” contestant was recently arrested. That was real. But the star of the new “Bachelor” is the great-grandson of tire entrepreneur Harvey Firestone. How real is that?
Typically absent from these programs — or any television program, for that matter — are the less-than-beautiful, the less-than-svelte and the less-than-immoral.
Furthermore, the contestants are placed in unrealistic situations with the cameras rolling.
Take NBC's “Fear Factor,” for example, where individuals compete with one another by doing stomach-churning stunts such as being buried in a container filled with centipedes or consuming slugs and cow bile.
On Fox's “Joe Millionaire,” a bevy of women competed for the affections of a man who they thought was a millionaire. In fact, Joe was a heavy-equipment operator. The entire premise of the program was based on a lie.
The prurient programming amounts to a kind of national peep show.
Take ABC's popular “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette” programs. Each sets a member of the opposite sex searching for a mate among a cast of potential mates. As the programs progressed, the couples were shown showering and sleeping with one another.
Then there was “Temptation Island,” where couples were placed on islands with members of the opposite sex.
The appeal for viewers relies not only upon seeing which contestants keep progressing but also in secretly relishing the reaction of the ones that get dumped, thereby capturing the embarrassment, humiliation, misfortune and sin of others on nationwide TV.
According to a February Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted during the 2001-2002 television season, two-thirds of all shows contain some sexual content. Furthermore, the number of programs depicting sexual intercourse was 14% — double the figure in 1997-1998.
As far as entertainment goes, such programs seem little different from the kind of entertainment Romans used to enjoy nearly 2,000 years ago.
Naturally, as each network ups the ante to compete for viewers, one wonders what direction the trend will take next.
News pundit Matt Drudge reported last fall that FX Cable's Rupert Murdoch is developing “America's Candidate” — a television show that will allow the public to vote on a “people's candidate” to run for president of the United States in 2004.
Reportedly, 100 candidates will begin the series, squaring off in debates and other competitions as the semifinalists are whittled down to three. Think of it as a political version of “Survivor.”
“The series will be seeking the Jesse Venturas of the world,” said Kevin Reilly, FX's president of entertainment. “Hopefully, we'll find some very qualified civil servant who lacks a power base and maybe also a plumber from Detroit who tells it like it is.”
Do we want a political candidate that appeals to viewers’ lowest common denominator? Hailing from Minnesota myself, where we suffered through a so-called “people's candidate” who won only 37% of the vote, I'm not so certain I would want such a candidate leading our country during a time of potential international conflict.
Reality-based programming even received attention in Congress recently. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., interrupted the debate over the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada to warn his colleagues of the bigotry of CBS’ planned “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” — a program that intends to give a wad of money to a family of hillbillies and bring them to Beverly Hills. “CBS has become just another money-grubber,” said Miller, a self-described hillbilly.
Miller raises an excellent point: Has good taste given way to big profits?
We might do well to remember the story that is told about the beginning of the end of spectator atrocities in the ancient Roman Coliseum. The story is told of a gladiator who one day defiantly refused to kill his opponent. In response, the spectators left the stands, with fewer and fewer of them returning each day.
One North Carolina television station just did the equivalent. WRAZ — a Raleigh-Durham station — decided to go against the stream rather than along with it. After previewing the Fox program “Married by America,” the station objected to the program's encouragement of cohabitation and the management pulled the program from its lineup.
Let's pray it's the beginning of the end to such television rubbish.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.