Reality TV is about something other than just reality. Once you've made people eat squirming bugs or jump between airplanes, and stripped them of all human decency and degraded them before a national audience, what else can you do to shock viewers?
Obviously, the FCC has made it clear that it will impose record fines to make sure the airwaves remain squeaky clean. So anything truly outrageous will have to appear on cable. What do you think it will be? With Howard Stern off to satellite radio, anything visual on the cable system is going to be really bad. (And why isn't the content from a satellite system subject to FCC perusal? Do they use a different kind of RF that we don't know about?)
The end of Puritanism (which the rest of the world thinks is the motto of the United States) perhaps came with the airing of shows like “The Graham Norton Show,” “Coupling” and “British Men Behaving Badly” on BBC America. These shows are direct and in your face about sex, but somehow they come across differently than the lewd programming of a character like Benny Hill. And nudity is hardly something new on European TV. In the 1970s, Italian video pirates started a national addiction to the female anatomy.
The network that broadcast many shows of recent ilk, like “The Graham Norton Show,” is Britain's Channel 4. It seems to have a let's-see-how-far-we-can-take-it attitude, and it has fired the first shots in a down-hill slope toward voyeurism, with a little “shock and awe” thrown in for ratings.
The program that really got viewers to the phones was when Channel 4 broadcast an autopsy — live. It was the first time since 1832 that the British had seen a public autopsy. Conducted by German professor Dr. Gunther von Hagens, it was a well-shot, well-lit show, with taste certainly in the eye of the individual viewer.
Death was also the subject of a documentary, “Beyond Love,” in which the heroine had a fetish for corpses.
The documentary “Animal Passions” was about a man who made love to his pony; the act wasn't depicted, but it was described in its minutiae.
Things got a little sicker (from my point of view, at least) when Channel 4 broadcast a show called “Sex Inspectors.” On the show, couples making love (live) were observed by sex experts who gave advice and recommended different sex toys to help improve the couples' orgasms.
Recently, the channel has created a bit of a stir by advertising on its Web site for a terminally ill volunteer who will subject his or her body to a two-month experiment. The show will exploit the manner in which the human body deteriorates — all in front of the camera, of course.
This macabre proposal, just for reality TV, does have a real counterpoint. The University of Tennessee runs a facility that examines the deterioration of corpses under various circumstances. Directed by a forensic anthropologist, Dr. William Bass, and known locally as the “body farm,” it serves to find the solution of many otherwise inexplicable deaths.
But this is a little different from Channel 4's proposal to make the natural process public. Is this any worse than when Channel 4 showed a man eating a dead baby's flesh?
These are just some of the wonderful pieces of programming that are coming your way. Just as derivatives have sprung up around “reveal” programs like “Changing Rooms” (with the U.S. version known as “Trading Spaces”), there are certain to be even stranger versions of these questionable Channel 4 productions. These types of programs seem to be good for both viewer numbers and attracting advertisers.
I've never quite gotten into the habit of using adult language or shopping at adult stores, so I guess I have a bit of growing up to do. And, beyond all the strange output from the UK, I have even bigger problems with Comedy Central's first animated reality show, “Drawn Together,” which I find even more real than reality itself — if that's possible.
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.
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