It had to happen sometime. The miracle is that it took this long. Tens of millions of Americans tune in for weeks every time CBS' gaggle of pseudo-survivors eat rats and grubs, lounge on the beach, bicker, moan and plot who to expel next. Each one eyeing the million bucks at stake for the last manâ€”or womanâ€”standing. But thereâ€™s a lot more than money at stake for those sitting comfortably in front of their TV sets soaking it all in.
"In the old days, you had to find a window to be a Peeping Tom. Now itâ€™s right in the living room," says Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. But heâ€™s not shockedâ€”just chagrined, convinced that "television and voyeurism were destined to be married."
USA Today columnist Robert Bianco explains why "electronic peeping" is suddenly so popular. "Weâ€™re watching for the same reason we eavesdrop on the couple fighting at the table next to us at a restaurant," he wrote. "Public displays of bad behavior fascinate us."
Man against woman. Strong against weak. Old against young. Gay against straight. Christian against pagan. Survivor isnâ€™t at all about shipwreck victims lost at sea foraging for food. Itâ€™s a microcosmic experiment in social Darwinism. "Who shall we get rid of today?" Weâ€™ve all wished at some point or another (especially as teenagers) that we could be rid of someone in our life. But weâ€™ve always been taught to mend fences and learn to get along. The world according to Survivor, however, would teach kids that the best way to get ahead is to rally popular support and eliminate the undesirables.
Still, itâ€™s the question of where our voyeuristic tastes are going that troubles me a great deal more than where they are today. And MTVâ€™s nine-year foray into the genre with The Real World and Road Rules forecasts its rapid descent into indecency. Beginning as quirky, somewhat lowbrow, yet humorous experiments in human interaction, such series can easily mutate into what might as well be a parallel dimension.
Among the influx of clones and variants gearing up right now is a series in which "contestants" must evade "bounty hunters" in three large U.S. cities. Initially, the networks will craft plenty of safeguards and rules to insure everyoneâ€™s dignity and safety. But once the novelty wears off and we tire of watching "fake reality," will network execs decide that the real thing would boost ratings? What happens when the stakes are raised (as in Stephen Kingâ€™s tale, The Running Man) and winners must literally risk life and limb in exchange for fortune and fame?
"Never!," a voice cries out inside me. "This isnâ€™t ancient Rome. Weâ€™re much too civilized to even contemplate such a thing." My inner protests quickly wither when I realize how chillingly easy it would be for producers to take something like Extreme Championship Wrestling (which already features fierce brutality, real injuries and lots of blood) and cross it with some bizarre new survival experiment.
Could all of this happen as part of a craze fueled by an "innocent" little contest called Survivor? As harmless as Survivor appears on the surface, I just canâ€™t get rid of this nagging feeling that it serves as a Trojan Horse for the blindside attack sure to follow.