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'Reality': Where Will It All End?

On TV

August 08, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY

The following press conference is fictional. It hasn't happened, at least not yet. Yet given the current drift of television into increasingly bizarre manipulations of "ordinary" people, can anyone doubt one like it will take place in the not-too-distant future?

Network executive: Please take your seats. First, we wish to express our heartfelt sympathy to the families of the nine victims who lost their lives during our latest prime-time reality series, "Kill or Die: Hunt for Survival," which, as you know, premiered at the start of the current rating sweeps. We will do everything in our power to help them through their time of grief after this unforeseeable tragedy.

Now, with the understanding some matters are off limits because of possible litigation, we will take your questions.

Question: In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

Executive: Look, it's easy to play Monday-morning quarterback. You can argue that our background checks should have uncovered the alleged perpetrator's history of mental illness, hatred of people and fear of being confined in small spaces for any length of time. But we did our best, and viewers loved the show--especially when he seemed to be experiencing a nervous breakdown--until this unfortunate incident.

Q: Was it really necessary to fill the house with guns and long, sharp knives?

Executive: I'd like to defer to our producer on that.

Producer (through German translator): Yes, of course that was necessary. Having the contestants hunt, kill and gut their own food on camera was part of the game. We needed to introduce a level of excitement beyond what's come before. It never occurred to us they might turn the weapons on each other or the crew members, who, fortunately, were outfitted in bullet-proof vests.

Executive: When you think about it, though, it does lend a little credibility to our contention that guns, and not television programs, kill people.

Q: Isn't the network ultimately responsible for this?

Executive: Absolutely not. The contestants were asked to fill out and sign a 104-page waiver saying they accept responsibility for the outcome of the game. They knew about the strobe lights to keep them from sleeping and the wrestling matches that would be staged to determine who ate that night. No one could have predicted this.

Q: Wouldn't you at least admit your security measures were somewhat lax?

Executive: The fact the alleged perpetrator was able to elude police and lead them on a three-hour high-speed chase before taking his own life on the freeway, in plain view of the pursuing helicopters, was an unexpected bonus--or rather, a tragic and unforeseeable side effect, and we also apologize to the families of the children on the school bus that was forced into the embankment. We are told none of the 17 injuries are life-threatening.

Q: Who exactly conducted the background checks? And how could they miss some of this data?

Producer: We went with a top, highly respected security company, which we cannot name at this point because of possible legal action. They assured us they used every available means to research contestants. Why the stay in the mental hospital and the shopping mall shooting spree were missed is still being investigated.

Q: Isn't this the inevitable outcome of throwing people who would seek this sort of exposure into such absurd, fabricated situations?

Executive: I don't see anything inevitable about it at all. Several psychologists told us the uncontrollable crying and threats about killing companions were to be expected given the conditions.

We have been very clear since our acquisition by Yahoo--which in turn was acquired by AT&T before they were bought, of course, by Microsoft--that we will act in the best interests of our stockholders, and we feel our mandate is to put on the most compelling programs we can find.

Q: Doesn't the escalating need to be "compelling," as you put it, lead to this sort of tragedy?

Executive: I don't think so. "MASH" was compelling, but no one went out and started a new war because of it, did they?

Q: Um, "MASH" was fictional, and we were in Vietnam when it premiered.

Executive: Never mind then. But you get the point. At the end of the day, if viewers don't like it they can always turn to one of the seven cable networks we own or our secondary broadcast channel. Everybody--except the extremely poor, I guess, and we're going after a more upscale demographic anyway--has hundreds of viewing options.

Q: Were the videos from the families--including the one in which the suspect's parents referred to him as "a pathetic loser"--really necessary? Didn't that help trigger this response?

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