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Marrying for Fun and Ratings

March 04, 2000|MAURA E. MONTELLANO

Last month's Fox special, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," garnered smash ratings and immediately touched off debate about the limits of so-called reality programming. Yet despite the embarrassing outcome of that show--the groom later admitted a former girlfriend had gotten a restraining order against him claiming he assaulted her; he denied the allegations--other networks are still jumping on the reality programming bandwagon with programs planned to strand strangers on a deserted island and a behind-the-scenes look at a pop music group. MAURA E. MONTELLANO spoke with Stuart Fischoff, professor of media psychology at Cal State L.A.

What is the attraction of the cluster of reality television programs that either have exploded on the television screen or are waiting in the wings for imminent broadcast? First of all, we are a species of voyeurs in that we really like to watch what other people are doing. It is written into our DNA as social animals that we must be aware of what our cohorts and our leaders--our alpha males and females--are doing because it has a potential impact on us. Reality television confers celebrity status on anyone who is on for an extended period of time. Television celebrities become the equivalent of alpha males and females. Moreover, it doesn't matter why you are on television, only that you are and thus that you are more important than the viewer who isn't on television.

It may seem a Faustian bargain to many of us, but that's only if the emerging celebrity has something to lose, like prestige or reputation. If they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, it will not matter what they said or did; they were on, that's what counts. If you are on television, you are instantly cut from the herd of mediocrity, of ordinariness.

The primary audience for "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" was women. The show catered to women's fairy tales and fantasies, like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. It is my guess that the replay was pulled to avoid further offending that audience because the groom was alleged to have been abusive toward a former girlfriend. But the truth is that no matter what we think of the taste of this show, whether it was a dagger in the heart of feminists, there is a tremendous audience of women who enjoy the nurturing of these fairy-tale concepts. It makes life bearable.

As for the millionaire's Princess Bride, she now says she was upset she was on the show and entered into the marriage. Yet she is walking away with $100,000 worth of prizes. She is emblematic of America today. She is a me-head; she wants what she can get for herself no matter how she gets it and she'll put a spin on it later. She holds an unflattering mirror up to our culture in which women trade on their bodies and men trade on their money. It should be that women trade on their minds as well as their looks. Tragically, shows like this reaffirm to women how singularly important their looks are.

It is also the case that reality television is "television reality," not mundane reality. The taped footage will be edited down to what is interesting. Real reality, mundane reality, is far duller than television, more flat-lined than filled with peaks and valleys. That's why people like sports or police chases. Something exciting can and often does happen.

The genie is out of the bottle, particularly with the advent of the Internet, of which television eventually will be a part. The Internet is not covered by FCC restraints, and if it gets more interesting and gamey than what broadcast and cable television can offer and they improve the streaming of images so that the look more natural, people will flock to the Internet to watch "interesting" stuff. In the worst-case scenario, it will be very violent, perhaps the equivalent of snuff movies. There are billions of people in this world, so someone will eventually offer online viewing of real murder--for a subscription fee of course.

That will push broadcast television to more extremes. Sex and violence are the cheapest and easiest ways to elicit emotion from an audience. What we are seeing now on reality TV is just the sordid tip of the darkening iceberg.

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