Reality's most demeaning TV moments

Debra J. Saunders

2/5/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
I have an excuse. I wanted to watch the 10 p.m. news, but hit Channel 2 early and ended up with the last 10 minutes of "Reality TV's Funniest Moments" on the screen. Can network TV sink any lower? To start, calling contrived shows such as "Survivor" reality TV is analogous to calling Cher a natural beauty. If there's any reality, it isn't so much in the show as in viewers' attitudes, since it seems that the purpose of "Survivor" is to give viewers an excuse to rag on a bunch of strangers and make good clean fun out of deciding which character is creepiest. I'm enough of a snob that I've never watched "Survivor" -- not even for a column. On the other hand, I get that needed sense of Colosseum-audience satisfaction -- I watch and critique, you squirm -- out of other media, like radio. "Reality TV's Funniest Moments" combines the two lowest forms of TV, Reality TV and the "blooper" show. You know: Ha ha ha, hilarious outtakes. They should have called it "Highlights of Low Moments." Or "The Show that Wouldn't Be on TV if People Didn't Have Remotes." Say there are 45 minutes of TV programming in an hour of television. That's probably about 40 more minutes than producers could find of funny outtakes from so-called reality TV. Alas, producers needed to fill a whole television hour. So what did lucky viewers see? People falling or trip ping, with a laughter soundtrack to let you know how funny falling and tripping are. Men falling off boats. Men trip ping at the beach. A guy falling off a tree. And look, that fat woman is going to fall into the water. A veritable laugh riot. In comedy, people falling often produces laughter, but that's because there is something funny about how one falls or where one falls. In this case, there was nothing particularly funny. The show's creators -- what a jaded crew they must be -- seemed to be operating on the basis that if someone falls in front of a camera, that's funny. Yuk. Yuk. According to early ratings, "Reality TV's Funniest Moments" drew some 8 percent of TV viewers -- or more than 5 million households -- during its time slot. That's millions of households that couldn't find something better to do -- say, read a book -- than watch this hour of dubious amusement. Five million households with standards you can't call standards. There is no reason to be surprised. Friday's Chronicle included a wonderful story about parents who object to public school teachers showing R-rated movies in class. Go parents. And while you're at it, why not call on schools to dispense with the lazy practice of showing any movie during class time? One history teacher told The Chronicle, "It's very difficult to talk about war in context without discussing how bad war really is. When I show "The Patriot,' we stop and look at scenes, especially the scenes that are somewhat violent' ... We have a discussion about what war really is." Welcome to Reality 2001, where teachers -- of all people -- believe movies like "The Patriot" really show what war is. People who see themselves as good teachers believe they have to freeze frame a bloody stump to convey the brutality of war to students. Even educators find more reality in Technicolor than the written word. If a history teacher (obviously unfamiliar with Thucydides or Steven Pressfield) cannot find a book that conveys the horrors of war, if a teacher can only do so with a videotape, the very least her employers should demand of her is that she assign the movie as homework (with parental permission if the film is rated R.) Showing a movie during class is equivalent -- in terms of teacher laziness -- to making students read to themselves during class time. Then there's the message in showing movies. If there is one thing schools shouldn't feel a need to do, it is to push students to absorb more passive video entertainment. When they grow up, today's students will need to know how to communicate, how to persuade, how to analyze and how to read between the lines. Watching movies is not the ticket. The savvy teacher should be challenging students to be ware of the mass media. The written word invites criticism, the video image invites passivity, with plenty of commercial breaks to microwave the popcorn. Teachers should see it as their job to woo students from the siren song of "Dawson's Creek." Teachers should challenge media that try to convince people that Hollywood is real and caring. Consider those preachy 30-second spots that feature network stars telling viewers how to live. Ostensibly, these TV friends really care about viewers, so they come up with sage advice: Parental involvement is important. Diversity good. Mentoring good. Violence bad. A 1999 "The More You Know" NBC spot advised parents to listen to their children "without judging." As if network execs have some special understanding about what makes families work best. Do teens think these anorexic celebrities care about them? If TV stars and networks cared about viewers, they'd be running public service announcements that tell viewers: Turn off the TV. Read a book. Go for a walk. Visit a park. Get really real. Live your own life before this little box becomes your idea of reality.