For a few years, I wrote the television year in review for the World Book
encyclopedia. It's a funny assignment, because, somewhere in the midst of doing it, you realize you're writing for history
and you also realize that terms we understand easily in this day and age need to be explained in encyclopedias as if they are foreign phrases.
I found myself writing things like "At the four major providers of national television fare, called the networks, the staple programs were called situation comedies, or sitcoms, usually a half-hour long."
When I would read these pieces back to myself, I sounded like Alistair Cooke narrating a PBS documentary about splitting an atom.
Oddly enough, I was thinking about this last week as I watched an episode of NBC's Fear Factor, the part where contestants were assigned to drink big glasses of liquefied pig livers and eat duck embryos and a cereal consisting of some crunchy bug-like thing. Some of them couldn't hold all that down.
The eating-gross-things started, I guess, with Survivor, but it's Fear Factor
that has made it famous. Its Christmas special called on contestants to chomp down on reindeer testicles.
Imagine, I said to myself, trying to explain "reality" television in an encyclopedia. Imagine, I said to myself, trying to explain it to anyone 10 or 20 years from now, when, you have to hope, reality as we know it ceases to exist. Imagine, I said to myself, being NBC's Jeff Zucker and having to explain airing a program with contestants eating reindeer balls to, say, well, actually, anyone who asked.
The great thing about television, they always say in television land, is that no one forces you to watch people eating deer testicles. That's why there's a remote control. The problem is that, as reality television has proliferated, the alternatives have become just as pointless.
A few days after Fear Factor
held its liquefied-pig-liver kegger, Fox repeated a reality special it first aired last January called Man vs. Beast,
which featured as its ultimate competition "44 little people" (that's what they called them) harnessed together like sleigh dogs competing against one great big elephant. Each was attached to a DC-10 airliner. The object was to see which could pull it past the jet past a line 75 feet away.
The elephant won.
Earlier in the show, Man vs. Beast
proved, to my satisfaction anyway, that a world-class sprinter can take a giraffe in a 100-yard dash. And a former Navy SEAL can beat a chimp on an obstacle course.
Now, the television apologist says, "It's awful. But you watched, right?" And that's right. But I'm hired to watch, as I am to watch a guy pretend to be a millionaire; a family compete to become a sitcom (My Life as a Sitcom); a bunch of has-beens do, kinda, nothing (Surreal Life); and a talentless overfed bimbo literally fall over herself (Anna Nicole Smith). And I can tell you that, almost without exception, anything is better than all but a handful of reality shows out there.
I happen to actually like television, but not this. I would rather know a lot about the backstory of Frasier
characters than even a sentence or two about the winning Bachelorette.
Caring about what happens to Sipowicz on NYPD Blue
is what watching television is all about.
What damage reality television is doing for the overall image of television is beyond calculation.
Television suffered for years by merely creating a show called My Mother the Car,
which in four words summed up the insipid level of 1960s television. (Gee Marge, I think that Newton Minow fellow is right. It is
Reality shows already planned for February include The Will
(family members compete to get a bigger share), Are You Hot?
(No intelligence necessary, ABC promises) and the especially humiliating I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!
Given what we've already seen, we're setting a whole new low for commercial television, and, quite gleefully, television can't wait to get there.
The medium has the habit of taking a good idea and beating it to death. In the case of reality television, after next month, it might be good to have an ambulance standing by.
But whatever you do, don't read the television year in review in any encyclopedia next January.
Bednarski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org