When TV Is Stranger Than Fiction
Going through my parent’s library as a kid, I’d look at a history book that documented the first photographed execution. The journalist had taped a hidden camera to his leg. In the electric chair, a blurred--or jolted--figure sat strapped like Frankenstein.
The picture fascinated me, so I would go back to it. I knew I should feel disgust or pity, but all that emerged was cold curiosity. Although I understood the photographer’s trespass, I was too young to name my ghoulish delight. Was it Freud’s "schadenfreude," gladness about harm done to another, or relief "but for the grace of God, there go I?"
Whatever the label, television has finally caught on. Prime-time is now packed with gripping real-life drama, thanks to Dateline, 20/20, 48 Hours and 60 Minutes. Dateline is on almost every night, and even has its own parody, Lateline. But gone are the days of Mike Wallace chasing white-collar criminals down alleyways. Even Wallace has yielded to the bloodlust by broadcasting a Kevorkian-induced death. Today extremities, like that death-row photo, rule.
"See these six children?" 20/20 starts one night, showing a video of kids playing. "Just after this video was taken, they were all killed." Of course I have to find out why. Waiting through the commercial, I wonder, Why do six children have to die for me to watch TV?
I blame the Simpson case. During its Proustian unfolding, we discovered real life offers more excitement than any James Garner detective series. Who could have imagined that opening police chase? The grisly murder of a football hero’s beautiful wife? The racial issues inspired by a crime tagged on yet another black man?
The night the trial verdict came in, Clinton read the State of the Union address knowing he had the TV audience of a 2 a.m. informercial.
TV’s news magazines then realized the attraction of legal cases, which provide evidence and ask viewers to decide. Dateline regularly polls its audience with 1-900-number questions. If Dateline had been in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, it might have asked: Is Jesus the carpenter really the Messiah as he claims? (One drachma per three-minute call).
Life and death issues drive ratings both in Jerry Springer as in Dateline, although most Dateline viewers would probably never watch Springer. Until recently, such reporting was considered "yellow journalism." In the early 60s, most journalists knew of Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe. "Hell, we would interview him in bed with her!" one broadcaster privately admits. Yet no one reported it.
Why do we accept the news magazines’ insistence on their integrity? First of all, their hosts, top broadcasters such as Jane Pauley and Barbara Walters, inspire confidence. Then, Dateline flashes its glistening Emmies while 20/20 boasts of 300 journalism awards. You sit back in your Barcalounger convinced this is the next best thing to PBS.
Most episodes, however, only recycle Simpson-type drama, the bloody and bizarre parading as top-notch journalism. What’s detestable is the deceit: Be honest and call these programs Unsolved Mysteries.
Let’s face it, the Clinton scandal had all the qualities of a good Unsolved episode: A Betty Currie look-alike ushers the plump Monica-clone into the Oval Office. A shadowy figure inside mumbles, "Monica! Good to see you." The door closes. Host Robert Stack then uses words like "seductive," "tryst" and "sexual games" to avoid saying "thong" or "cigar."
At the very least, you can see Monicarama filled a huge gap left by the Simpson case.
If it’s an emotional roller coaster ride you want, watch The Weather Channel (below). We can’t control nature, so there’s no guilt or schadenfreude in following its fury. Besides, those staticky, in-flight hurricane reports are spectacular. I can’t help but wonder, Will those pilots make it back to the base?
Tired of the what-happens-after-the-commercial hook? Don’t want to "find out why Monica kept the dress"? Try these programs as an antidote:
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