"You could go on and on about greedy contestants, about how people will do anything for 15 minutes of fame or a wad of cash, but that’s nothing new; to be honest, I’d probably be willing to set my own face on fire and put it out with a golf shoe for fifty thousand bucks. The outright idiocy of the entire program has critics everywhere up in arms, railing against the dumbing-down of American network programming..."

the sickest trick of all: fear factor's cruel reality
by marc covert


It may well be the scariest news to come out of Variety magazine in its long history of chronicling the TV biz: NBC has ordered up 13 new episodes of both Fear Factor and Spy TV, both of which serve as network television’s version of "Butt Rodeo."

What is "Butt Rodeo," you ask? "Butt Rodeo" is the thing of legends, a drunken college prank spoken of in slurring, reverential tones when aging frat boys get together to swill some suds and brag loudly about past debaucheries. A "Butt Rodeo" requires that one of said frat boys arrange a "tryst" with his sweetheart, preferably in a dorm room; before the encounter, as many of his besotted brothers as possible pack into a large closet or get ready out in the hallway. As soon as the "cowboy" mounts up on his "filly," all of his buddies burst into the room, yelling "butt rodeo ONE, butt rodeo TWO…" The idea is to see how long the cowboy can stay in the saddle before being bucked off.

Now, one can only hope that "Butt Rodeo" is just so much alcohol-induced braggadocio -- yet another tasteless slice of urban legend. One would pray that once the boys sober up long enough to stop cackling over a story like that, they would realize it is, to its very core, mean-spirited and demeaning.

Chances are you won’t see it in any of those eagerly anticipated 13 new episodes of Fear Factor or Spy TV, but the cruel, shallow, callous nature of both shows comes pretty close; both provide a harsh monitor of the road down which our populist culture seems headed.

Spy TV is really just a 21st century version of Candid Camera, even going so far as to filch some of the classic Candid Camera routines. But that’s where the similarities end. While Candid Camera was at its heart a warm and friendly show, Spy TV is the opposite—mean, vulgar, undignified, absolutely cruel in the planning and execution of their so-called stunts. And there is plenty of blame to go around for the overall feeling of negativity and tension that pervades this show: the vicious circle of what passes for entertainment these days encourages a coarsening and harshness in our society. In one stunt, a bride-to-be and her mother are told that their wedding gown has been ruined the day before the wedding; the bride breaks into tears while the mother unleashes a string of profanities, threatens lawsuits, and physically threatens the Spy TV "plant" posing as a bridal shop clerk. In a classic Candid Camera routine, a woman sweeps a sidewalk outside of a shop, and whacks passersby on the ass with her broom. The reactions are mostly hostile, with one man going after the woman with his hands outstretched, not exactly looking like he has any other intention than to throttle her before the camera cuts away. The subjects are set up, sure, and have a right to be angry, but it all just shows humanity on the edge, stressing out and spinning wildly out of control.

And no wonder—just look at what they are consuming for entertainment.

The real star of this summer’s network TV offerings is Fear Factor. It would be hard to miss the hype for this one—rats and snakes and bugs and heavily padded putzes plummeting through space serve as powerful hooks for the more easily amused among us—ideally those who also happen to make up the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, that most sought-after group of MTV weaned, money-flinging masses that is slobbered over by network execs and shareholders. Brought to you by Endemol, a Dutch company responsible for CBS’s Big Brother and UPN’s Chains of Love, Fear Factor spends an interminable hour on Monday nights subjecting a group of six schmoes to a trio of "terrifying" stunts. If you screw up or chicken out, you’re gone; last one standing wins $50,000. Usually they start off with a "heights" stunt—on July 30 they got to be "human wrecking balls," swinging from a crane, breaking through a wooden Fear Factor sign with their heads, and dropping a sandbag on a target. Following this is the "gross-out" stunt—being covered in snakes, climbing into a tub of mealworms, being tied to a board and covered in hundreds of rats, or eating an assortment of bugs or stinky offal (seems they always mention "it’s a delicacy in other cultures"). One week it was sheep eyeballs, another week it was live beetles, on July 30 the contestants each had to eat a pair of buffalo testicles. Big, boiled, bulging buffalo balls, sucked down up close and personal, in all their juice-spurting glory. Stunt number three is usually some variation on being trapped under water—July 30 saw the two remaining contestants, a little raw perhaps from brushing the buffalo nards from their teeth, strapped into a car, lowered into a tank of water, and charged with extracting a baby doll from a car seat in the back, coming out the driver’s window, and putting the doll in a bassinet.

So where do you begin criticizing a show like this? You don’t even have to scratch the surface to see that it’s just plain awful from the start. It plods through an hour at a snail’s pace, with no fewer than 35 commercials during five breaks (KFC, American Pie 2, Smirnoff Ice Malt Beverage, the "Only You" bra, etc. etc.). The contestants are humps, they just take up space, you don’t care about them; you can’t care about them because the show doesn’t even bother with the perfunctory personal information you get from contestants on half-hour game shows. You could go on and on about greedy contestants, about how people will do anything for 15 minutes of fame or a wad of cash, but that’s nothing new; to be honest, I’d probably be willing to set my own face on fire and put it out with a golf shoe for fifty thousand bucks. The outright idiocy of the entire program has critics everywhere up in arms, railing against the dumbing-down of American network programming.

But criticizing the contestansts or the show itself is missing the point. NBC is not in the habit of tossing shit to the minions if those minions are not tossing piles of currency back. Fear Factor debuted on June 11 with 11.0 million viewers, their highest summer premier in seven years and far and away the largest audience over its competing networks. It has steadily built up viewer numbers; at 14.2 million strong it is easily the highest rated show on any broadcast network this summer. With numbers like that, network executives see no reason to bat an eye in the face of loud complaints from critics and pundits. Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president, shrugs off criticism, saying, "We’re a network and we have to appeal to the widest audience possible…clearly the audience has spoken with regard to these programs."

Zucker’s statement tells you all you need to know about the state of our media/entertainment-obsessed society. Say what you will, his smug summary of NBC’s programming practices simply points to what a diet of his type of garbage really does to the intellectual curiosity and well-being of a huge segment of our population. You could call it an execution chamber of the modern intellect: eating bags of hydrogenated snacks and guzzling gas, sugar and chemicals while watching six hours what passes for entertainment these days is worse for your brain than taking a hundred high-grade bong rips in a row. You aren’t alive any more. You're a drooling, brain-dead shill, softened-up nicely for the sponsor's persuasive harpoons shot into your cerebellum by the interests that produce and control this endless flow of dog shit. Laughing or gawking at others’ pain and humiliation helps boost your own self-esteem while enjoying the degradation of the dupes appearing on these shows. Somehow you justify it by saying, "it’s okay because they’re getting paid," but inside you continue your devolution into a darker, unfeeling, uncaring organism.

You ought to know better.

But important programmers like NBC's Jeff Zucker are counting on you not to care.


Marc Covert is a Managing Editor for Smokebox. He can't seem to come up with a decent pen name so he uses his real one. He has recently made peace with the fact that he looks like a "Kansas reject." He fancies himself a writer, cartoonist, and photographer, so don't let him corner you at a party. Mercilessly taunt him by mailing to Vert..


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