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Networks cash in on shaky morals

Jan. 23, 2001

I have a confession to make. I have contributed to the rapid decline of morale in this great nation. I have seen Temptation Island. And apparently, I was not alone.

More than 17.5 million people tuned in to the show's debut to see four couples test their fidelity on an island overrun by beautiful, half-naked singles, making it the No. 1 show aired that night.

Although reality programming such as The Real World has been around for years, the 'realistic situations' portrayed are becoming more and more far-fetched.

The networks have finally figured out the equation for higher ratings: Sex and violence. And everyone is cashing in.

As if Temptation Island and Who Wants To Marry a Multi-millionaire? aren't degrading enough, the creators of Big Brother have begun planning their next reality venture they are calling -- get this -- I Want Your Baby. The show revolves around a group of unmarried women who choose between several potential sperm donors. In the end, one of the women will conceive through artificial insemination.

Another premise currently in production is a movie called The Contenders. In the movie, average people, selected by a lottery, are given a camera and a gun and forced to battle it out by killing each other off on screen. The last one standing wins the game.

These shows raise serious questions about the extreme nature of reality-based plots and perhaps even most television programming.

The competition between cable and the Internet has been so fierce that networks are having to concoct riskier and steamier premises just to attract an audience.

And ultimately, the reality shows are becoming less and less, well, reality-based.

Producers carefully cast each show with average people (with usually above-average looks) and purposely put them into rather interesting situations in an attempt to heighten the drama. Later, the clips are carefully edited (to feature the confrontational and over-dramatic segments) and layered voice-overs by the characters and melancholy background music is added.

Temptation Island is a prime example of this over-the-top production. Send couples to a beautiful island to be split up and heavily encouraged to indulge their lustful appetites with hired tempters.

But the producers aren't the only ones to blame. Who are these people who are willing to be put into such tempting predicaments?

Katy McFadden, TV critic for the Seattle Times, said one motive might be for 15 minutes of fame.

'In some ways, reality programming fulfilled one of television's democratic ideals, which is: Anybody could be on TV. Anybody could be famous on TV,' she said.

I think McFadden is right. It is just a simple case of supply and demand.

People are willing to lend themselves to projects that will manipulate and exploit their violent and sinful nature, and since others will watch, the networks are cashing in by suppling a venue for that exchange.

Though everyone seems to be getting what they want, the reality shows are dangerously bordering on content Americans may not be able to handle.


Staff writer