FOX must be thanking their lucky stars that "American Idol" is back and drawing a bigger debut audience than ever before, because the "reality" show genre has been sinking at that network lately. One obvious reason is that the "reality" genre is a fad, and all fads eventually wane. Another reason, however, is the very poor taste of the programmers. There is no sensitive human story the reality-TV gurus at the FOX networks would not throw under a bus to score a ratings bonanza, and it's getting old.
The latest outrage was a 90-minute reality special called "Who's Your Daddy?" FOX made a game show out of an adopted daughter's search for her birth father. The woman was asked to guess the right birth father out of a field of eight men and earn $100,000. If one of the men who was not the father fooled the woman, he would get the money. Across America, people watched the promos, and jaws hit the floor. FOX doesn't care if people are outraged and appalled, so long as they tune in to see how the crudeness unfolds.
How crude is too crude? Bill Lamb, general manager of WDRB-TV in Louisville, Ky., didn't want to pre-judge the show, but told the Associated Press he wasn't optimistic: "I think it's just another one in a long line of tasteless FOX shows. How do you differentiate one from another anymore?" But Lamb is one of those enabling people who runs a FOX affiliate and airs this garbage even as he shakes his head at it. Only one gutsy FOX affiliate (in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.) refused to air this ghastliness. Fortunately, when the spectacle aired, it came in fourth in its time slot.
Let's look at the show's subject, an adoptee named T.J. Myers, who spent the entire special too thrilled at the prospect of a birth-parent reunion to consider the idea that she could pick the wrong "dad" and humiliate not only herself, but also her actual father. T.J.'s adoptive parents were ignored, except for a throwaway mention at the show's beginning. FOX was too busy hyping its pick-your-papa concept as "the ultimate guessing game." In the end, the few people who actually watched this outrage might find it tempting to forgive FOX's offenses considering the emotionally touching reunion of child and birth parents.
Not so fast. While it's true that poor T.J. Myers was adopted, there was a sleazy angle the viewers did not know. It turns out Myers has a Web site with many pictures of her scantily dressed, advertising her services as a "actress/model/spokesperson." You can learn of her "leading lady" roles in classic films you've never heard of, like "Bio Tech Warrior" and "Seduction of Innocence." Her latest cinematic triumph is titled "Poop (A Formula Film)." No wonder she was so thrilled to risk humiliation, and so thrilled to create a happy scene of family reunion at the end. She's trying to jump-start an acting career. That's some very manipulative "reality."
For their part, adoption advocates were outraged by the show's premises. In a letter to FOX Entertainment Group chairman Peter Chernin, Thomas Atwood of the National Council for Adoption protested that FOX was taking "the media's misguided fascination with adoption openness to ridiculous new heights." While the phenomenon of adopted children searching for birth parents is less common than media coverage might suggest (one study says less than 15 percent of adoptees go looking), Atwood wrote: "Whether adult adopted persons search or not, they almost universally recoil at the idea of doing so on national television, let along taking part in a 'guess your birth father' game show."
Atwood suggests that FOX's parental reunion ploy reinforces an erroneous idea that adopted people aren't complete if they don't solve the mystery of their birth origins. He says adoption is most successful when the society and the culture accept that the adopting parents are the true and permanent parents of an adopted child.
Since FOX can cleverly manipulate any individual adoption story for a contrived happy ending, it can ignore the fact that searching for birth parents can be most hurtful to adoptive parents. And what if the search uncovered an unhappy ending? Would FOX consider airing a show where an adopted person discovers the birth parents were drug addicts, or an episode where the adoptee discovers he or she was the by-product of a rape? That's too much reality for even FOX to handle.
It never ceases to amaze how the "reality TV" format so often gives us the phoniest spectacles around. FOX Television Studios has filmed six separate "Who's Your Daddy?" shows, but the network has not yet scheduled any of the others to air. Let's hope they never do.