Harsh reality TV

Posted: Oct 10, 2002 12:00 AM
The entertainment television business isn't just based on ratings, it's based on profits. Some of the biggest TV hits of our time, like "Friends," see their profits diluted by star salaries commanding $1 million per major character per episode. It helps you understand the appeal to network executives for "reality" shows, where willing human camera fodder will do the most ridiculous things for next to nothing more than the chance to be televised. It's the latest in cheap ego massage: I am televised, therefore I am. Nearly every network, from entertainment to educational TV, is into the reality show concept. Even PBS put an educational spin on the trend with "1900 House" and "Frontier House," having 21st century-pampered people try to survive in 19th century dwellings with 19th century technology. This is the digestible exception to the rule. Most "reality" shows on television today are based on the idea that televised sex, foul language and violence are much more engrossing when it's not in a fictional setting where creativity and talent play roles. Often the most receptive audience for these stupid (literally) shows are young people. For example, "Survivor II" was one of the most watched programs in the 2- to 11-year-old demographic during the May 2001 sweeps period, with 3.5 million young kids tuned in to watch the final episode. If you have any doubt that "reality" shows are affecting the minds of their young audiences, listen to Matt Young, a "cast member" of MTV's "The Real World: New Orleans." He said "One of the most terrifying things I've had happen was meeting a 7-year-old girl in a grocery store who said, 'I thought it was so funny when your roommate danced naked on 'The Real World.' Until you experience that, you really don't understand the impact that television has on kids." "Reality" shows have gone from fad to fixture, including, if you can believe it, the creation of a "Best Reality Show" award at the Emmys. It's high time we took a closer look at them. In an attempt to quantify the magnitude of inappropriate material for impressionable kids, the Parents Television Council conducted a first-of-its-kind study across the new frontier of "reality" shows. On the broadcast networks, analysts found the overall rate of sex, foul language and violence was 9.5 instances per hour. Translation: Every six minutes there is something offensive or entirely inappropriate for the very children being targeted by the shows. For an example of what's going on, take CBS's insufferable "Big Brother 2," in which young game players are locked up in a house together. The censors were nowhere to be found as our very temporary stars delivered the "S" word several times without being bleeped out. One "cast member" was thrown out of the house for putting a knife to a woman's throat, asking, "Would you get mad if I killed you?" But CBS narrator Julie Chen squeezed every moment of voyeurism out of the creepiness: "He put the knife to Krista's throat as they kissed," she breathlessly explained. "He took the knife away momentarily. With Krista's encouragement, he put the knife back to her neck, and they kissed again." For those who like depictions of sex along with their violence, these two also showered together nude for the home audience. On Fox's "Temptation Island," the men stripped
completely for the laughing, clapping women. In another scene, a woman licked food off a man's nipple, and the man licked something off her bare stomach. Try explaining all this to your 7-year-old. On basic cable networks, the "reality" was even more shocking. The overall rate of sex, foul language and violence was 29.4 instances per hour, more than three times the broadcast average. The absolute champion of vulgarity was MTV's "The Osbournes," with a stunning 140.5 instances of offensive content per hour, the overwhelming majority of which was constantly bleeped "F" obscenities. But we could also witness the show's star, booze-and-drug-addled rock dinosaur Ozzy Osbourne, paint us a less-than-pretty picture all about his experiences with Viagra. The granddaddy of all this sex-drenched "reality" TV is MTV's "The Real World," now in its twelfth season of sleaze, with an estimated 20 percent of its audience under the age of 18. The popularity and cultural glorification of these shows is the latest avenue for TV producers to "push the envelope" a few more steps into the gutter. With the shock value of "real" events, it may be only a matter of time before scripted shows attempt to catch up with the raised expectations of more frequent and explicit sex talk and obscenity. It's all a most depressing reality for parents.