Depressing "Reality" Show Sleaze

Who would have imagined five years ago that the fad, the rage, the phenomenon of network television would be the "reality" show? Now that it's the 21st century, network executives are putting expensive actors and their scripts aside for average Americans trying to claw their way into their 15 minutes of fame. At least 20 percent of the prime-time schedule during the February sweeps period was composed of reality programming.

Unfortunately, these "unscripted" moments are even less acceptable for family viewing than the old, unfashionable scripted shows. A new study by Aubree Rankin of the Parents Television Council examines the reality-show "Race to the Bottom," and confirms what we all knew to be true. Most reality shows are scraping the bottom of the barrel and sending young viewers all the wrong messages. Not only do these shows encourage voyeurism by filming contestants in intimate situations, they also contain some of the vilest language imaginable.

For example, during the study period of 114.5 hours of reality television in 2003 and 2004, there was an alarming 1,135 instances of foul language, 492 instances of sexual themes, and 30 instances of violence for a total of 1,657 instances of offensive content. That's a more than 50 percent increase from the hourly rate of offensive content on broadcast reality shows in 2002.

In the world of "reality" television everyone curses a blue streak. There were 199 bleeped uses of the f-word on reality shows studied, making it the most commonly used profanity on broadcast reality programs. There were 76 bleeped uses of the s-word in this study.

UPN's "America's Next Top Model" had one aspiring supermodel screaming at another about religion: "Robin, how [bleeped F-word] dare you show me that 'foolish is the atheist' Bible verse this morning and ask me what do I think of it. What the [bleeped F-word] am I supposed to think of it? You know what I think of you? Foolish is the woman who believes that [bleeped 'G-d'] damn tripe."

Thank goodness the show's title isn't "America's Next Role Model," even though this is the kind of example young girls who might aspire to modeling are seeing on television.

Then there's the sex, and the sex talk. While the usual sexual innuendo far surpassed all other forms of sexual content in this study, nudity was the second-most-frequent type of sexual content on reality TV shows, followed by anatomical references and references to or uses of pornography. The PTC also counted 16 instances of sexual activity on reality programs included in the study, as well as one reference to bestiality, two references to masturbation, eighteen references to kinky sexual practices (including group sex), and two implied instances of oral sex. Does that sound like great family viewing right after dinner?

We won't get into - no kidding - the bikini-waxing segment of the "Top Model" show. But how about the moment on the very popular "Survivor" series in the Amazon where the women Heidi, Jenna, and Shauna were bathing topless and talking about how they should use their nudity to distract the men and advance in the game? It's not surprising that two of them later ended up in Playboy, having created a market demand for men to see what was behind the network pixilations.

Reality programs thrive on one-upmanship. ABC's "The Bachelor" lets a man pick a bride out of a group of single, attractive women hand-picked by the producers. Fox's "Married by America" let the audience pick the bride. Producers of "Big Brother" hope for a "hook-up" they can televise nationally. Fox forced couples to "hook up" or get kicked off the island on "Paradise Hotel." Every time a reality show ups the ante with outrageous behavior or shocking footage, it's encouraging subsequent shows to add more skin, more twists, and more shocking behavior, resulting in that perpetual race to the bottom.

What's a young viewer likely to learn from reality TV? Backstabbing and betrayal will get you ahead in life (Survivor)? Marriage is not to be taken seriously (Married by America)? Money matters more than love when choosing a life mate (Joe Millionaire; For Love or Money)?

Networks are clearly pushing the envelope with reality series, so parents ought to write to network executives and advertisers. The FCC needs to be vigilant in enforcing commonsense decency standards for broadcasters. Producers make choices when editing the hundreds of hours of raw footage into each episode and have repeatedly chosen to include explicit language or graphic sexual content, bleeped out or pixilated whenever absolutely necessary. But make no mistake: They want those final restraints removed. It's the logical next step in Hollywood's race to the gutter, and absent a national outrage, is precisely what will happen.