- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

ON MEDIA

What a gaudy, disturbing and canny culture hath "reality television" wrought. Ironically, we get TV imitating life that is imitating TV which is still imitating life.

January is rife with this odd genre in all its permutations as reality TV get more unreal.

It's shameless, ludicrous and unintentionally comedic as it goes through this powerful feedback loop, amplified by a powerful media and a restless consumer culture.

On-camera in the next few weeks or shortly thereafter, we'll witness couples chained together, wooing on a cruise ship, cheating. There will be plump folks dieting amidst bakery delights and women trying to become rock stars.

Enemies will spy upon each other, battle it out with paint-ball guns or race willy-nilly across the country. Cops will try to apprehend professional stunt drivers in created scenarios.

Things get underway Tuesday when ABC debuts "The Mole," where 10 contestants try to find not a garden pest but a saboteur.

The FOX network alone will introduce 10 new reality shows this spring, though producers vowed last year to be tawdry-free, and even have risk management advisers assess their programming.

To no avail. Witness FOX's particularly inane "Temptation Island," which debuts Wednesday.

The network sent four unmarried couples "at a crossroads in their relationship" to tropical Belize for two weeks, where they were pursued by 26 eligible singles bent on home wrecking.

Sexual high jinks, cuckoldry and scanty foundation undergarments are apparently adequate plot devices for FOX producers but not for critics.

"The idea that it is sport and amusement to see if one can destroy a relationship for the purpose of securing ratings and profit is just unacceptable," Rabbi Kenneth D. Roseman of Dallas told the network last week.

The American Family Association and the Parents Television Council are both protesting the show.

To block criticism, FOX television said yesterday that the show's participants were tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

"This is not a show, as you will see, that is about sex," said Sandy Grushow, chairman of the FOX Television Entertainment Group. "This is a show that is exploring the dynamics of serious relationships."

Of course, CBS's blockbuster "Survivor" series re-emerges after the Super Bowl on Jan. 28, complete with $50 million worth of advertising.

The supposedly clandestine identities of the 16 contestants who dallied in the Australian outback for dramatic effect were leaked on three separate Web sites before Christmas.

The group of contestants which includes a chef, an Army intelligence officer and a shoe designer was formally introduced on the network's "Early Show" in what some critics consider a shameless attempt to raise the show's failing ratings.

Details, too, have emerged like the fact that CBS gave contestants vitamins. "We don't think malnutrition makes good TV," noted medical adviser Adrian Cohen. The show also emphasizes drama over titillation, producer Mark Burnett insisted last week.

"Babes won't hold an audience," he said.

But lawyers might. Peculiar legal ramifications have emerged to add yet another facet to reality TV culture.

Chicago lawyer Marvin Rosenblum, who owns the film rights to George Orwell's "1984," sued CBS in August, claiming their series "Big Brother" took their plot line from the novel. On Thursday, a judge refused to dismiss the suit, and it is headed for Round 2 this spring.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at 202/636-3085 or by e-mail at [email protected]


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