If parents find the new "reality TV" lows of American television
too intense for their young children, they might be oddly comforted to know
that popular culture in other countries is sinking even lower.
England's Channel 4 is reaching for eyeballs the newfangled
way -- pure, socially unredeeming shock value. On Nov. 20, the British
people were blessed with a treat. They could turn on the telly to watch an
autopsy. "Maverick doctor" Gunther von Hagens performed the honors on the
corpse of a 72-year-old German man who, viewers were told, loved a lot of
whiskey and cigarettes. Programming officials no doubt thought the public
would like a curious peek at those innards. After all, the autopsy was
performed in front of a studio audience of 200 paying spectators. Yes, (SET
ITAL) paying spectators.
Then there's Channel 4's upcoming "People's Book of Records"
show. To get a sense of this series, consider one of the quests for
"achievement" in the pilot episode: People were challenged to see how many
sausages they could bang on a table in the time it took a man in the same
room to have his genitals pierced. Who is sicker, the person who thought up
this stuff or the one for whom it was created?
British papers are presently chortling over the producers'
request asking for dog owners to come down to the TV studio to answer this
deep inquiry: "Smearing a foodstuff of your own choosing, how many times can
you get your dog to lick your bum cheeks in a minute?" One shutters at the
thought of hundreds of limelight-lusting dog owners without a shred of
dignity dispersed throughout the British Empire, spending the days with the
family dog in rigorous practice. In case you thought this was vile, the
producers protest: "It won't be bare-bottomed. People will be wearing
trousers with circular holes cut out." The show's executive producer, Phil
Gilheany, pulled out the reality TV impresario's book of clichés to dismiss
these gags as a bit of "quite innocent fun."
But wait, it gets worse. Much worse.
The other boiling controversy at Channel 4 is the show "Beijing
Swings," which rang in the new year by broadcasting still photographs of a
Chinese "performance artist" biting into the charred flesh of a stillborn
baby. When asked to explain why it would show photos too graphic for
newspapers -- not to mention benefiting at the expense of baby corpses
stolen from a medical
school -- the network explained it was providing a look at "artistic freedom
of expression and showing the growth of the underground art movement in
China." Translation: Because we felt like it.
Channel 4 officials also refused to confirm if the "artist," Zhu
Yu, actually ingested the human remains: "It's for people to decide in their
own minds whether they think he did it." Zhu can also be watched as he has a
piece of his own body grafted onto a pig. Apparently, this sideshow isn't
offensive enough, Zhu also declares his work is inspired by his own
supposedly devout Christianity: "Jesus is always related to death, blood,
wounds, et cetera." London Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak, the
program's host, called the feat "suffering for your art on a messianic
As for the Christian view on his baby-eating, Zhu claimed, "No
religion forbids cannibalism. Nor can I find any law that prevents us from
eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law
and based my work on it." Such is how one views "art" in our enlightened
times. One Tory member of Parliament offered a fine rebuttal: "Jesus Christ
said, 'Suffer the little ones to come unto me,' not that they should be
eaten for public entertainment."
Despite a public outcry before the Jan. 2 broadcast and demands
that advertisers withdraw, Britain's Broadcasting Standards Commission says
it could not address the propriety of a program before it aired and drew
public complaint. The only things watering down this nightmare (as if they
matter) were the show's 11 p.m. air time and the promise of a disclaimer
warning of the images to come. Perhaps the announcer could have said: "This
program contains shocking images of human cannibalism that someone thought
would make this network profitable."
Why should we care? Isn't this typical European decadence? The
answer is many of our American "reality" shows were first hits on European
TV. Let's hope this kind of program is one import we can stop at the border.
But there's nothing preventing this pattern from repeating itself.