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Howard Rosenberg / TELEVISION

Does TV Provide Our Danger?

March 09, 2001|Howard Rosenberg

A 15-year-old student shoots up a suburban San Diego high school, killing two and wounding 13 others.

Nightmare.

A U.S. nuclear submarine crashes into a Japanese fishing boat, leaving nine missing and presumed dead.

Nightmare.

In the towns, villages and rain forests of Borneo, bands of Dayaks slaughter hundreds, perhaps thousands of Madurese, including children, beheading many and ripping out their hearts.

Nightmare.

Michael Skupin is taped fleeing to a pond with nasty hand burns on "Survivor: The Australian Outback," and when the episode airs on CBS months later, some at CBS News and others in the media cover it as a major breaking story.

Hype.

Is it possible that many Americans no longer can separate actual conflict or crisis from the faux or whipped-up kind, so impenetrable are their brains after having blurs of TV images hurled at them, each appearing of equal weight?

Is it possible, also, that the real world doesn't offer enough peril to satisfy the appetites of these thrill-starved TV viewers?

That's what many in the industry must believe. Else why would they create so many "Survivoresque" TV shows that involve viewers vicariously--from the cushy safety of their homes--in dangers said to be facing an array of adventurers on the screen?

Listen to what's coming:

"Rising out of the South China Sea is a land where explorers vanish, where exotic creatures live, where headhunting ended only 50 years ago. They call it the heart of darkness. They call it Borneo."

No, not the Borneo of headless corpses and hearts of slain Madurese eaten by Dayaks in recent butchery bloodying the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan. More savage still, this is the Borneo of . . .

"Eco-Challenge."

Airing on the USA Network next month after being taped last August--accounting for the intro's premature headhunting reference--are four nights of "Eco-Challenge: Borneo" capsulizing a 12-day competition said to "punish, torment and take no prisoners."

A teary voice: "We need immediate assistance on the bike course."

And the Madurese think they have it bad.

Speaking here to viewers from time to time, as executive producer and founder of the annual "Eco-Challenge," is none other than "Survivor I" and "Survivor II" creator Mark Burnett, the driven TV impresario who is becoming this milieu's Vince McMahon of carefully charted spontaneity. The WWF doesn't do it any shrewder than Burnett, whose 6-year-old "Eco-Challenge" has been telecast previously, but never before as what he calls "unscripted drama."

Read that to mean swollen melodramatics.

This 320-mile race across water and rugged terrain was surely challenging on many levels, and most of the 304 participants from 26 countries tough, earnest competitors. Yet affirming that Burnett has not lost his marketing touch are three of the novices he chose to include.

Former Playboy centerfolds.

When two of them are forced ashore after their boat springs a leak, your pulse is pounding and heart in your throat as they labor to patch the hole, a camera in their telegenic faces.

"Status: Marooned."

And when another U.S. team must drop out after a rule violation, that is accompanied by tears and heavy funereal music.

"Status: Disqualified."

What's more, another competitor is there after only recently learning to swim, another is competing with two cracked ribs, another is badly injured when tumbling over his bike's handlebars, and two others, we're told, "gamble on being caught in a fierce storm, risking their boat and, possibly, their lives."

And viewers should care deeply? Keep in mind, no one forced anyone here--or "Survivor II's" Skupin and his fellow camera-ready dabblers, for that matter--into daredevildom. Unlike the murdered masses in the Indonesian region of Borneo--south of the Malaysian sector where USA says "Eco-Challenge" was taped--these participants chose to expose themselves to risks. They had options.

Facing them are the leech-infested jungle and numerous other hardships, as we hear that "Team Playboy has to dig deep in the face of this relentless and unforgiving course."

Former centerfold digging deep: "Look at my feet already."

If you think that is tense, get a load of Fox's coming "Boot Camp," as the look and tone of "Survivor" extend to more and more of the TV landscape. These eight episodes are described as "a game of endurance and elimination, where your ally could be your worst enemy, and every strategy--including alliances--is inherently flawed." Talk about originality.

Competing for $500,000 here is a squad of 16 "recruits" of both genders who endure "real-life military boot camp" run by four Marine drill instructors. Each week, one squad member is voted out by fellow "recruits." Sound familiar? Before leaving, however, the ejected member, too, gets to oust someone.

In other words, NO ONE IS SAFE!!!!!

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