Reality TV: Wasted on the Young

Maybe you've decided that the best way to endure the current onslaught of cheesy, sleazy, nasty "reality television" is to say to yourself, in effect, "The sun'll come out tomorrow." There are those out there who think it won't.

"Not everyone in the business believes [reality TV] is a fleeting fad," the New York Times' Bill Carter wrote on July 17. "For some programmers, reality shows represent...the end of an old world and the start of a brave new one...Almost all [of these shows] have been outright hits with young adult viewers, and especially big with viewers under 30...And if young people are hooked on these programs, whatever else is said about them does not matter. [My emphasis.] More than ever, network television is steered by youth culture. Advertisers prefer young viewers, and networks will do anything to deliver them."

For CBS, "anything" meant the appalling July 12 installment of "Big Brother 2," a reality show wherein a group of adults lives in a house where virtually their every move and utterance is monitored by 38 cameras and 62 microphones. In that episode, 26-year-old male contestant Justin Sebik vowed to "punch [female contestant Autumn Daly] in the stomach" and remarked of an unspecified woman, "I'm going to do her doggy-style and I'm going to give her such a kidney [punch]."

That's nothing. In a sequence not shown in the episode but described on camera by "BB2" host Julie Chen, during a drunken kitchen makeout session with contestant Krista Stegall, Sebik picked up a large knife, asked Stegall, "Would you get mad if I killed you?" and put the knife to her throat - twice.

Sebik claimed it was all a joke ("If there's anyone that can perceive that as an act of violence or as a threat, then you're an idiot"). The producers disagreed and threw him off the show. That move seemed especially wise a few days later after the Times learned what the CBS talent scouts had overlooked: Sebik has been arrested five times in his hometown of Bayonne, N.J., "twice for minor robberies and three times for simple assault."

In the end, CBS tried to have it both ways, presenting itself as responsible by ejecting this creep and benefiting from the increased ratings for this heavily promoted installment ("What did one of these housemates do that forced producers to kick him out?...Don't miss what everyone will be talking about").

It's not that Sebik's thuggery was the only offensive element of "BB2." That July 12 episode, for example, included multiple unbleeped obscenities and profanities, none of them from Sebik.

Aired during the "family hour," this is CBS's version of family values, I suppose. According to a CBS spokesman, the network believes "BB2" is "compelling and interesting," but Brian Lowry of the Los Angeles Times reported that "at least some CBS employees privately say they are embarrassed by events on the show." Don't these people understand they'll never succeed in Mel Karmazin's company with such a lousy, principled attitude?

NBC was late to jump on the reality bandwagon, but it wasn't, as it turned out, too late. The network has ordered thirteen more episodes apiece of "Fear Factor" and the "Candid Camera" knockoff "Spy TV." USA Today's Robert Bianco declared that those programs, both of which premiered last month, were guilty of "an absolute disregard for human dignity."

If you object to such fare, chances are you're just too old, says NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker, who told Lowry, "There's been a slight generational change in what the under-35 audience expects...We will always take a quality drama or a quality sitcom first... but if we don't put on programs that are of interest to this [younger] audience, where are we going to be in five or ten years?"

For its part, Fox will bring back last winter's reality titillation-fest, "Temptation Island," as well as debuting "Love Cruise," which focuses on frisky young (of course) singles aboard ship.

Reality television doesn't have to be cruel or vulgar to draw viewers. On the second version of "Survivor," the obnoxious contestants were off the island fairly early in the game; those left behaved like, well, adults. Reality TV is also "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," still one of the hottest shows on the air. It's also ESPN.

There's plenty of questionable behavior on scripted series, but at least it involves fictional characters. Reality shows like "Big Brother 2" can't mount that defense. It is television at its professional worst.