Reality television: oxymoron

George Will

6/21/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Fred Allen, a mordantly sophisticated radio performer, died (mercifully, if not causally) just as television was permeating America, in 1956. He warned us: ``Imitation is the sincerest form of television.'' So there will be imitations of ``Fear Factor.'' That NBC program, in its first episode last week, attracted nearly 12 million voyeurs to watch simpletons confront their fears, for a fee. In that episode, confronters were covered by a swarm of biting rats. This week the program featured a willingness to eat worms and sit in a tub of them. ``Fear Factor'' is an imitation of an MTV program, ``Jackass,'' named, perhaps, for its target viewer. But American television is being imitative. ABC's ``Nightline'' reports that French, Spanish and Japanese television have similar programming, although none has--yet--matched the Peruvian show that pays poor people to eat maggots and be splattered with frog excrement. Last spring NBC concocted XFL football, promising more violence on the field and more cheerleaders' breasts on the sidelines than the NFL provides. The league drew a big audience for the first telecast, but the ratings began to plunge by the third quarter, and the league died after one season. Optimists concluded that NBC had underestimated the viewing public. The optimists were, as usual, wrong. NBC understood that it had underestimated only the perversity required to rivet the attention of millions in an era when graphic violence and sexual puerilities are quotidian television. So NBC sank to the challenge of thinking lower. But it had better not rest on its laurels because its competitors in the race to the bottom will not rest, and the bottom is not yet in sight. The possible permutations of perversity programming--the proper name for what is called, oxymoronically, ``reality television''--are as limitless as, apparently, is the supply of despicably greedy or spectacularly stupid people willing to degrade themselves for money. (A philosophical puzzle: (BEG ITAL)Can such people be degraded?) But perhaps the monetary incentive is superfluous, given today's endemic exhibitionism that makes many people feel unrecognized, unauthenticated--or something--unless they are presented, graphically, to an audience. Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilized society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of ``choice,'' adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in--video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity. An optimistic premise of our society, in which ``choice'' is the ideal that trumps all others, is that competition improves things, burning away the dross and leaving the gold. This often works with commodities like cars but not with mass culture. There competition corrupts. America, determined to amuse itself into inanition, is becoming increasingly desensitized. So entertainment seeking a mass audience is ratcheting up the violence, sexuality and degradation, becoming increasingly coarse and trying to be--its largest challenge--shocking in an unshockable society. The primitive cosmopolitans among us invariably say: Relax. Chaucer's Wife of Bath, the Impressionists and James Joyce's ``Ulysses'' have been considered scandalous. As the Supreme Court has said, ``One man's vulgarity is another man's lyric.'' All right, then: One man's bearbaiting is another's opera. That British pastime involved pitting a chained bear against a pack of dogs, who fought, and usually killed, the bear. The historian Macaulay famously said that the Puritans opposed bearbaiting not because it gave pain to the bears but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. The Puritans were right: Some pleasures are contemptible because they are coarsening. They are not merely private vices, they have public consequences in driving the culture's downward spiral. A mass audience is its own justification to purveyors of perversity television, who say: We are only supplying a market. As though there was a strong spontaneous demand for televised degradation. The argument that the existence of customers justifies the product distinguishes the purveyors of ``Fear Factor'' not at all from heroin pushers, who are not the purveyors' moral inferiors. How will a ``pro-choice'' society object to a program--let's call it ``Who (BEG ITAL)Really Wants to be a Millionaire?''--on which consenting contestants will be offered $1 million to play Russian roulette with a revolver loaded with a real bullet? Imagine the audience for the chance to see violent death in living color in prime time in the comfort of one's living room. That's entertainment.