Originally created 07/23/01

TV 'reality' gets further and further out there



PASADENA, Calif. - A dog chases after a contestant in a padded outfit, pulling her onto the ground. Welcome to "The Fear Factor."

A man is scared by phony land mines in South Korea on "Spy TV."

And "Big Brother 2" contestant Justin Sebik, a 26-year-old bartender from Bayonne, N.J., holds a knife to the throat of Krista Stegal, a 28-year-old waitress from Louisiana who doesn't appear to mind.

"He has a bizarre sense of humor. It was part of his strategy; he's a tough New Jersey guy," "Brother" executive producer Arnold Shapiro said. After the knife incident, Shapiro expelled Sebik from the show; he had made previous threats of violence at the "Big Brother" house.

"Bizarre" - that's one way to describe this time in television, when the most unreal scenes happen on "reality" shows.

If it were just bizarre, it would be TV as usual. But television this summer seems obsessed with fear, to the point of showing a fierce dog pulling someone to the ground. That's entertainment?

When "The Fear Factor" is about people rising above their fears with amazing stunts, it's a cool show, the stuff of circuses. But the dog stunt went too far. It's wrong to terrify people for ratings, even if there's no physical injury.

It's wrong for someone to make threats of violence, even if no blood is spilled. Holding a knife to someone's throat isn't funny. It's dangerous.

What if Sebik had slipped with the knife? I'm glad Shapiro removed Sebik from "Big Brother 2." But I wish he and the other producers hadn't allowed him there in the first place. There has to be better screening.

Shapiro was surrounded one day last week by reporters at this month's Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena; he was there to talk about his "Flipped" reality series on MTV, in which teenagers learn something by being thrown into unexpected roles. Shapiro produced the "Teen Files" and "Scared Straight" documentaries, which have shown kids the dangers of drugs, smoking and other addictions. He came aboard "Big Brother 2" to give a dull series some life.

"Justin had never been violent," Shapiro said. Sebik had no record. "We tell them, 'If you break the rules, you're out.' We take threats of violence seriously."

CBS didn't show the actual knife holding, but it did show Sebik's comments leading up to it. And Julie Chen, the "Early Show" news anchor who is the host of the reality show, interviewed Sebik on tape for "Big Brother 2."

"There's no way you could ever see that as a threat," Sebik said. "If she felt threatened, I don't think that she would have said, 'Go for it,' laughed and kissed me."

CBS didn't need to show any of that. Sebik shouldn't get the attention. Well, Shapiro certainly wishes all the media's attention wasn't on Sebik. He said reporters aren't saying enough about his other programs.

"I have won an Academy Award, and I have done quality documentaries. I'm doing this one show that's for fun."

There are more reality shows coming. And this year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has added a new non-fiction category. "Survivor" has received five nominations.

"I have no problem with them (reality shows) as long as they are what they say they are," said Meryl Marshall-Daniels, the academy's chairman of the board and chief executive officer, shortly after this year's Emmy nominations were announced. "They must be above reproach."

Any good program deserves recognition, and viewers are watching reality shows, said Jim Chabin, the academy's president. "TV needs to constantly reinvent itself, or it's in danger of going out of business."

Still, networks don't have the final say over what's on the air. If viewers want an increasingly dangerous genre to stop, there's a choice we can make.

Don't watch.

(Dave Mason is television editor of the Ventura County Star in California. He can be reached at mason@insidevc.com.)