- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

The morning's confessional show was a real stunner. A young woman showed up to claim on camera that a certain man was the father of her infant. He protested, on camera, that he was no such thing. A test of DNA, taken beforehand, proved him right.
The young lady said, well, it's another guy, the first man's best friend. He, too, protested, and DNA cleared him, too. When a third man was named mercifully, we were spared seeing him it was all but a foregone conclusion that the DNA was not his, either, and it wasn't.
The young woman was left without a clue. If she had been a teen-ager in the '50s she might have said: "Maybe I got it from a toilet seat."
Such humiliating exposures have become the staple of daytime television. The guys and doll in this particular instance seemed delighted to be on "The Maury Povich Show." Much less important than the degrading facts of their lives was the pleasure they took in enjoying their 15 minutes of (in)fame(y). Stupidity fuses notoriety and celebrity.
If Nathaniel Hawthorne were to write "The Scarlet Letter" today, the "A" would not be written as an emblem forced upon Hester Prynne by the court, her adultery would be enshrined by Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones. The Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale, whose identity was shielded by Hester, might even make a surprise appearance. Doctor Chillingworth, Hester's husband, would be deprived of his revenge through revelation; all would be forgiven by a talk show host. All would end in hugs. The audience would be more interested in voyeurism than judgment.
When Oprah asked a young woman why she left her newborn in a trash bin, the new mother replied that she wanted her child to be safe and secure while she pursued her own college education. Not everyone would approve of the explanation, Oprah told her, but "I understand perfectly."
"I understand perfectly." The mantra of our age, and the message we're meant to take from the run of new shows like "Survivor," "Big Brother," and "The 1900 House" where "real life" men and women, as opposed to actors, are exposed as holding qualities that anyone with the slightest sense of decency not to speak of modesty would hide from public observation.
But we're playing by different cultural rules and attitudes. The cultural antecedent for these new shows was spawned in 1973 with the PBS documentary of a family followed for 300 hours over seven months, and edited into a dozen one-hour episodes. Millions watched the real life activities of "An American Family," made up of two parents, five children, four cars, three dogs and a swimming pool. We watched the marriage of Pat and Bill Loud dissolve literally on camera. Their son Lance, age 21, confesses on camera that he is a homosexual and the parents struggle with their emotions over that.
Pat Loud tells an audience that "Bill and I have never been able to have a relationship where we could honest-to-God talk to one another." Can anyone imagine a parent actually saying this to a circle of friends and family, much less millions of viewers? It was a shocker back then. Today it's commonplace.
In "The 1900 House" a real family lives as they presumably would have lived in Victorian England. The real mom, age 44, even makes her own "sanitary rag belt," and we watch and listen as she learns how. Victorian woman no doubt did that, but she would never have told the neighbors and the neighbors' husbands and children about it.
Vulgarity is typical in all these shows because it's part of life, but also because the people in them know what's expected and they want to deliver the goods. Situation intensifies emotion. "Big Brother," which follows "Survivor" on CBS, puts 10 strangers together in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house for more than three months. You don't have to be a behaviorist to know this spells trouble, but you could describe it as post-modern Pavlov. (All we need are a few salivating dogs.)
Although we can dismiss such pseudo-reality shows as nothing but commercial entertainment, there lurks in them a ubiquitous dumbing down of taste as well as moral judgment. We rely not on suspension of disbelief as we would in theater, but on a suspension of moral awareness as life passes before us. It shouldn't surprise (but it does) that one participant in the Swedish version of "Survivor" who was rejected by the group committed suicide off camera, which was not very considerate to the producers, who would have loved it. (Guatemala last week executed a prisoner live, on camera, so there's no doubt more to come here, too.)
Confessions and true life dramas can provide insight into the human condition and sometimes even inspirational uplift. But as audiences witness we may just watch while fame annihilates shame.

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