- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

When Richard Hatch netted the $1 million booty in CBS' first "Survivor," the nation marveled at the divorced dad who preferred birthday suits to khakis.

Flash forward more than 20 months, and soccer hunk Ethan Zohn's victory on January's "Survivor: Africa" barely caused a ripple in the cultural waters.

Television shows losing their grip on the pop cultural zeitgeist are nothing new. Consider a certain rail-thin female lawyer whose every neurosis once foreshadowed the mood of single women everywhere.

Sure, the ratings for the latest "Survivor" debut Feb. 28 were relatively strong, but they were nowhere near what the original series, or its immediate successor, drew. Worst of all, do you know anybody who sat on pins and needles waiting to hear who got kicked off first?

The ennui surrounding "Survivor," the unofficial king of reality shows, may portend doom for the fledgling genre. Sinking ratings for Fox's "Temptation Island 2" and the Super Bowl edition of NBC's "Fear Factor," replete with second-tier Playboy Playmates, reinforce the trend.

I think I know why.

When reality TV began, from MTV's "The Real World" to that first, groundbreaking "Survivor," viewers watched a televised version of unscripted lives in furious action.

Sure, the situations were contrivances. But the protagonists' reactions seemed unrehearsed, unlike any given moment on "The Tonight Show," where interviews play out like chats between actor and publicist. These bits of raw reality lept from the screen.

Now, the jig is up.

Reality contestants know what potentially awaits them. Playboy pictorials. Guest stints on made-for-cable programs. Quickie book deals.

Sure, contestants could be the next Tina, "Survivor 2's" lean matriarch who hasn't been heard from since she pocketed her treasure.

But, he or she could be the still-popular Rudy, the crusty ex-Navy SEAL who refuses to relinquish his 15 minutes of fame.

Today's reality players aren't necessarily eyeballing the camera every minute. They know better than that. Instead, they're acutely aware how their accumulated actions are being absorbed by audiences, and entertainment agents, everywhere.

They react accordingly.

Every outrageous act is redolent of insincerity. When I want overacting, I turn to the World Wrestling Federation or Al Pacino's last half-dozen films.

The innocence is gone from a genre that promised relief from soporific sitcoms and dramas where too often vulgarity is the only available creative attempt.

Reality show stars know what is expected of them, similar to what the guests on "The Jerry Springer Show" feel when they set foot upon the ex-mayor's hallowed stage. Fight. Yell. Spit. Throw a punch or two for good measure.

"Springer" was a guilty pleasure for me at first blush. Before the "Jerry … Jerry … Jerry" chant became part of our culture, who could imagine a panel of talk show guests erupting in the kind of behavior even my salty Bronx kin would dismiss as uncouth?

After a few episodes, though, I pulled a B.B. King and cried, "The thrill is gone."

That message, apparently, hasn't been heard by the networks.

CBS recently announced that a third helping of "Big Brother" is on the way this summer, and we can expect more reality from the network's low-rated "The Amazing Race" starting Monday.

A new entrant, the WB's "No Boundaries," combines elements of several reality shows in hopes of striking while the iron is room temperature.

Perhaps the bat-biting Ozzy Osbourne will rescuscitate the hyperventilating genre. MTV began airing "The Osbournes" on Tuesday, a curious example of reality TV-meets-sitcom. The program follows the everyday actions of the Osbournes, from aging rocker and perplexed pappy Ozzy to his rebellious teens and draconian wife, Sharon.

Here's a family so used to life under the media microscope it wants nothing more than to appear normal, despite its assemblage of tattoos and gold records.

If reality TV needs a 50-something metal rocker to pump some life into it, the end may truly be near.


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