Losing Touch With Reality
Published: February 21, 2004
The Littlest Groom," Fox's new show in which the audience is invited to gawk as a 4-foot-5 man searches for a bride, may mark an exploitative new low in television programming. It may also be the tip-off that reality television has "jumped the shark," TV-aficionado lingo for the point at which programming makes a final leap into witlessness and heads irredeemably into reruns.
It is hard to become too nostalgic for the golden days of reality TV, since the genre has always been a slightly sour cocktail of exploitation, voyeurism and humiliation. But looking back, it now seems as if there was a kind of innocence to the first "Survivor" group to do Darwinian battle on a deserted South China Sea island, or the first "Fear Factor" contestants to munch live bugs on national television.
Reality television, however, demands novelty. So the networks, eyes fixed firmly on the Nielsen ratings, became eager carny barkers, beckoning audiences to increasingly lurid variations on the theme. The deserted island became "Temptation Island," where attractive singles tried to break up "committed couples." On "Fear Factor," bug eating gave way, in a recent episode, to men diving into dumpsters and pulling out pig uteruses and cow stomachs for their girlfriends to eat. American networks are not alone in this race to the bottom. Last year, British television broadcast "Celebrity Detox Camp," which featured famous people getting enemas.
"Jumping the shark," as the Web site www.jumptheshark.com
explains, refers to a "Happy Days" episode in which Fonzie was on water skis and tried to jump over a shark, a stunt widely viewed as the beginning of the end for the series. Reality TV is still well represented in the Nielsens, but given its current state, it's hard to imagine that will last for long. Of course, just as reality television succeeded the craze inspired by "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," there is undoubtedly a new genre waiting in the wings. We're sure whatever it is will make for compelling viewing.
I wonder is there no limit to the humiliation and degradation that people will suffer in chasing the almighty dollar.