Running scared: NBC stoops to `Fear’

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Only a couple of weeks ago NBC President Robert C. Wright was all in a lather about the fact that HBO’s “The Sopranos” contains depictions of violent crime. He sat right down and wrote the world a letter.
On Monday night, Wright’s network will offer viewers, including young children, the chance to see game show contestants being lowered one at a time into a pit and covered with 400 rats.
From “Fear Factor,” the show in question: “They’re biting me! … They’re biting me! … Ow!” The Wright Stuff? God save us.
Yes, it’s another quality item from that paragon of class and good citizenship, the National Barfcasting Company. Wright should worry about what his own network is airing in what used to be the family hour. At least on HBO the violence is simulated and the victims are actors.
The sound you hear in the distance is not rats nibbling ears. It’s the sound of networks flailing. Their desperation increases as competition from cable grows and the old formulas and formats seem less and less attractive to American viewers. So what do the networks do? They don’t come up with ideas, they import them.
NBC’s own `Jackass’
CBS’s “Survivor,” ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and NBC’s “Weakest Link” were all imported from England.
“Fear Factor” seems inspired by the success MTV has had with an amusingly juvenile weekly series called “Jackass.” On this program, a band of friends perform asinine gags not to win prizes ($50,000 is the top prize on “Fear Factor”) but just for the hell of it. “Jackass” is gross on purpose, and sometimes the gags draw blood. But basically the show is a celebration of youthful bravado, of that time in a person’s life when mortality seems virtually inconceivable.
NBC has stolen from cable. But cable did it better.
“I don’t see the purpose in it,” one contestant on “Fear Factor” says when asked whether he wants to hop into the rat pit. He chooses not to. Good for him, especially if it displeased the network and the producers of this slime, Endemol Entertainment. The goal of Endemol is to lower the standards of television still further in pursuit of the almighty buck. “Endemol” sounds like “Ipecac”-something you take when you want to throw up.
“Fear Factor” made me physically ill. I wonder if I could sue Endemol. I wonder if all those who are made sick by the telecast could join in a class-action suit to put Endemol out of business and embarrass NBC. Or is it any longer possible to embarrass NBC-or any of the other broadcast networks for that matter? They may have passed the point of embarrassability.
CBS really started all this madness with “Survivor” and its unsavory implicit teases: Tune in to see real people suffer, scheme and possibly be injured. Closer and closer we come to Paddy Chayefsky’s vision of a man being murdered on TV in the interest of improving ratings. Somewhere Chayefsky is chortling and saying, “I told you so.”
It may not seem to be in the same class exactly, but Disney-owned ABC’s recent decision to uproot Barbara Walters and “20/20” from its longtime Friday-night perch so as to install its own (Disney-produced) prime-time soap opera “Once and Again” in that slot is further evidence of networks having no shame, of no longer caring how bad something looks, of abandoning any pretense of serving the public interest.
Certainly network affiliates have nothing to fear from Chairman Michael Powell and his pantywaist FCC. Somebody really would have to die to earn a slap on the wrist from those docile do-nothings.
Quality still matters
Cable audiences grow, network audiences decline. Pretty soon it will be 50/50. And then what? What lowdown, scummy gambits will be deployed to lure viewers back to the networks then? They still come around for something of extraordinary high quality done with taste and care-ABC’s “Anne Frank” movie, for instance. But high quality is so much trouble, so hard to do.
It’s so much easier to pour rats on people.
Or, elsewhere on the NBC schedule, to throw some more money at producer Dick Wolf so he can come up with another “Law & Order” clone. Pretty soon the peacock will have to be replaced by a wolf. NBC has ordered yet another “Law & Order” spinoff for next fall. Wolf is going to run out of sources for his criminal cases. Maybe “Shoplifting Patrol” or “Campus Security Guard” are on the old Wolfie drawing boards.
Wolf’s tight wallet
NBC loves Wolf because he is a stickler for budget control. He’s an economist as well as a producer. Actors getting uppity and demanding more money? Boom, he kills off their characters, just like that. But at least what Wolf produces is worthwhile. He has standards in addition to budgetary ones. Increasingly, the networks are home to outright sleazeballs, and the excuse always given is that this is what’s necessary to compete with cable.
Cable is healthy enough now that maybe it should take the leadership position and, by cleaning up its act, inspire the networks to do the same. Less wrestling-if only slightly less-is one good sign from cable, even if it wasn’t entirely intentional (and even if there’ll be more wrestling back again in the future).
As the basic cable networks thrive, their production budgets can increase and maybe they won’t have to put on quite as much rabble-rousing crap as they did in their early years. What’s clear is that at the moment, virtually nobody is taking the high road. The high road is empty. A ladybug could crawl across it with no fear of getting run over. The low road, however, is congested to the point of exploding.
Cable doesn’t pollute the “airwaves,” as the broadcast networks’ stations do, but it pollutes the culture when it programs irresponsibly and recklessly. Still, it’s hard to think of anything as irresponsible and reckless as “the rat pit” on “Fear Factor.” Maybe NBC deserves some perverse sort of congratulations. They’ve made “Jackass” look like “The Bell Telephone Hour” or “Omnibus.”
To put on a show like “Fear Factor,” you have to be contemptuous not only of the audience but of the medium. It’s come to this, then: Television That Hates Television. “Fear Factor” might as well be called “Self-Loathing Factor.” But don’t say we’ve reached rock-bottom. There are unknown horrors waiting up ahead. The low road is full of curves.