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September 18, 1988|Tom Shales | Washington Post

Anyone who watches much television knows that phrases like new and improved and for a limited time only mean absolutely nothing. Television loves to subvert the English language, and the latest word to be twisted out of shape is, appropriately enough, reality.

The big thing in fall TV programming is "reality" or "reality-based" fare. That means Hollywood sharpies will be trying to give real-life situations and real people the phony hype of TV schlock. We used to worry about "blurring the line" between fact and fantasy on TV; the line has now been blurred so many times it has become a hopeless smudge.

A likely outcome of this new trend is that people who go around saying they don't believe anything they see on television will be right.

Two new syndicated shows feature real people doing real things to other real people while the camera pries. "Group One Medical" offers doctors, nurses and their patients, venting spleens and heaven knows what else right there on television. "On Trial" will do for lawyers and clients what "Group One Medical" does for doctors and patients. For them? Maybe "to them."

A key to producing shows like this is a limitless supply of shameless people who will sacrifice privacy, dignity and self-respect for the thrill of being on TV.

Naturally, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network continues to set the standards in sleaze TV. "A Current Affair" rehashes and reenacts real murders in search of real ratings. Fox's "The Late Show" has now become the Freak Show, with a steady stream of weirdoes and wackos talking about transgressing creatures and the living Elvis. "The Reporters," on Saturdays, tries to turn pandering pseudo journalists into the stars of the stories they cover, dragging real people before the cameras as supporting players.

One thing the producers of these shows have in common is they all say, "Don't call us tabloid television." They whine about how unfair the term is. But Paramount has apparently decided this semantical quibble is beside the point. It is now developing its own imitation of "A Current Affair," and the working title? "Tabloid."

The folks who brought you, or thrust upon you, that colossal fiasco "Return to the Titanic" are preparing new "reality-based" specials for syndication in the upcoming season. "Titanic," with Telly Savalas browsing among crystal goblets and old doorknobs from the bottom of the sea, may have been dreadful, but it did well in the ratings. That is all ye need to know.

"UFO Cover-Up . . . Live!" from the same producers, is billed by them as offering viewers "the startling truth" about those pesky tourists from outer space. Yes, "truth"--there's another word television has beaten to pulp. On "Cover-Up" we will "meet witnesses who claim not only to have seen and touched alien spacecraft, but their occupants as well!"

But there's more from LBS Communications, distributors of the UFO show. In December, they will syndicate "Manhunt . . . Live!" This will be, they promise, "an unprecedented two-hour, prime-time television special aimed at providing a monumental public service to track down the most prolific serial killer of all time--The Green River Murderer.

"He's murdered 50 young women, maybe more. And he's still out there."

What happens if the Green River Murderer is captured or surrenders prior to this national vigilante spectacular? No doubt the producers have fall-back plans to protect their investment. Maybe they have another monumental public service up their sleeves.

Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael, talk-show hosts, have been in the news of late because they've learned that two so-called sex experts previously featured on their shows turned out to be actors apparently playing a hoax. The two hosts are indignant. Geraldo appeared on "Entertainment Tonight" assailing the pranksters and saying he wanted to push their noses into "something squishy." Like what, his brain? Sally Jessy said she thought the tricksters were showing contempt for the intelligence of the American people. Not really, Sally Jessy. They were probably expressing contempt for the intelligence of your producers, who booked them on the show in the first place.

I don't know when a news story has cheered me up as much as that one.

But it's a small victory; the trend goes ahead at full steam. Doctors, lawyers, felons, victims and space travelers all will be parading before the cameras in the pursuit of Nielsen numbers. Television will do its best to make reality a dirty word.

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