Blame the Belgiumians
Checking out the ever-lower levels of so-called reality TV
P.J. Bednarski Executive Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/14/2001 7:00:00 PM
If there is something positive to take away from the premiere of Temptation Island, it's that reality television is something Americans didn't invent. For as long as this trend continues, the rest of the world will not be able to blame it on us. I don't know which country should take credit, as it were, but if the new Bush State Department wants to look into it, I'd suggest they look at those Belgiumians, as he might refer to them.
Anyway, I'll predict this: The reality trend is just about over and last week's television- Temptation Island specifically-did it.
Watching four couples enlist themselves to be emotionally destroyed for several weeks is far different from watching a bunch of people face the prospect of eating broiled rats once or twice for a million dollars, which was Survivor'sinitial hook . On Temptation Island, the only thematic upside to contemplate is which one of the contestants ends up in July's Playboy, naked except for flimsy double entendres lightly caressing her lovely capitalistic parts. Within a week or so, I suspect millions of Americans also will decide they really don't care who ABC's Mole is or which Temptation couple disintegrates.
Life already provides more reality than I can stand. (You may have seen me on HealthInsurance Claim Form where the critics marveled at my big expletive-laced scene.) But when there was just Survivor, I could watch because at least the format was novel, not being a Belgian.
But by the time of Big Brother, I'd had just about enough, and by now, Temptation Island and The Mole have become almost parodies of the form.
When contestants speak to the camera, they've already learned, from Survivor, what they are supposed to say. Those soliloquies have the same originality as the one always uttered by big running backs who've scored touchdowns, return to the sidelines and exclaim to the camera, "Hi mom!"
Garth Ancier, the ex-NBC programmer, was the biggest loser Survivor produced, but maybe not. He may have seen the half-life in the trend. He may escape the era as the only programming whiz kid who didn't succumb. Give him a million dollars.
But if the media is your business, you checked out the sponsors, raced the next morning to see the ratings and reread the quotes from Fox executives who insisted prior to its premiere that really, truly, Temptation Island was not exploitative or immoral or crass.
"I strongly doubt people, when they see the actual show, will find it either sleazy or salacious," said Fox's Gail Berman, the president of entertainment, just before the premiere.
Quick, cut to the show and within the first five minutes hear the voiceover narrator explain how 26 buff "fantasy singles" have been "chosen specifically to entice" four couples to do whatever it is that unmarried men and women do when they... stray. The show then asks, "Who will be torn apart?"
I don't feel that's sleazy or salacious, do you?
The plain fact is that, without seeing episode two of Temptation Island, I think most of the fun is over. From now on, it's watching, as promised, as couples get torn apart.
If you worked in New York and watched the premiere, you might have also seen that on the same night, a local newscast included a sympathetic story about a new Web site that shows footage of how paparazzi photographers hounded John Kennedy Jr. and his wife, and wouldn't give them a moment of peace. The Web site weirdly practices quite a bit of what it purports to rail against. It is one thing to have seen photos of the couple around town. It is another-much more titillating-thing to see video of John using four letter words to get the photographers to leave them alone.
The reporter concluded that because we, the public, buy sleazy publications that print intrusive photos of famous people, we keep this sad cycle of sensationalism going.
Here's the great part of the story: That was a Fox newscast.
Yes, that Fox, where good animals have gone bad, and buff and sexy couples are tempted to.
But truthfully, every other network is on board. That is the reality of television reality: It isn't real. Last week in The New York Times, Dean Valentine, UPN's president, was quoted defending his own upcoming Chains of Love in which one woman is physically chained to three men for a few days. "There's something very powerful about being chained up to somebody else," Valentine told the man from The Times, which is a great quote all by itself but needs a chaser: There's also something really, really pointless about it.
Bednarski can be reached at pbednarski @cahners.com or at 212-337-6965.
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