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Cruel and Unusual Programming
June 27, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Located between the Palatine and Aventine Hills of ancient Rome, there stood a massive arena. The colossal facility was about a third of a mile long, 150 yards wide, and held approximately 200,000 spectators. It was the principal source of entertainment and amusement from about 600 B.C. to the 6th century A.D. and functioned as the mass media of its era.

It was called the Circus Maximus. People came to the arena to view athletic contests and chariot races, but as an additional diversion, the state purchased slaves and had the captives fight to the death in order to entertain the crowds.

It was in this same coliseum that the Christians, the group most reviled by the state, were covered with the skins of animals, torn to pieces by wild beasts, nailed to crosses and even set on fire to serve as a light source during the evening hours.

What is it about human beings that makes it somehow captivating to watch another suffer? Perhaps it is the same inborn characteristic that causes people to slow down and gather at the scene of an accident or crane to see an injury at a sporting event.

It seems as though this same base element that loiters in the heart of human nature is motivating the latest bout of reality TV fare. Television production has never been known for its originality. It is a sure bet that the industry is paying close attention to the fact that almost 50 percent of the top 20 television shows are presently dominated by reality TV variations.

Still, one wonders how far the devolution to achieve Nielson ratings will go. A modern-day version of the Circus Maximus may be in the making. Two of the new reality shows offer a hint. Both of these shows give the television viewing audience something that the previous brand of reality-based programming did not provide. Instead of merely watching the hearts of the occupants break on "Temptation Island" or observing the recoil of participants as they are emotionally taunted on "The Weakest Link," we are easing ever closer to a deeper level of risk. Viewers can now watch others suffer from the thought of, or the actual infliction of, physical harm.

The program "Fear Factor" offers contestants money to engage in risky or repulsive physical stunts. In one episode, the audience gets to peer at a contestant who is tied up and put into a hole with 400 rats. Switch scenes and viewers are treated to a spectacle of worms being heaped upon an individual as he rests uncomfortably in a coffin. In other memorable moments, onlookers watch as competitors jump from one moving semi-trailer to another and leer as a contestant is dragged by a horse down a stone-covered street.

Not to be content with the primitive thrill of vicarious danger that is evoked by programs such as "Fear Factor," the show "Spy TV" has added a new element to the reality format ­ vengeance. The basic premise of "Spy TV" involves teaching unsuspecting friends or relatives a lesson by placing them in embarrassing, humiliating or agonizing predicaments and capturing it all on film. It is a sort of demon-possessed version of "Candid Camera."

The show is oftentimes painful to watch. Angering someone to the point of exasperation or scaring a target out of his or her wits is typical of the pranks set up by "Spy TV" personnel. In one instance, a "Spy TV" victim seethes with rage when he is led to believe he has just lost a million dollars because he allowed an annoying patron to get in front of him in a grocery line. In another incident, a young man is terrified when a supposed salesperson takes him out for a test drive of a new automobile, drives the car erratically, hits a bicyclist, flees the scene and leaves the man on his own to face the police. In yet another tortuous segment, a relatively unsophisticated youth displays signs of anguish as he is interrogated at length by lifelike detectives who accuse him of involvement in international crime.

If "Spy TV" sustains its success, the temptation to carry this debasement even further will be irresistible. It may simply be a matter of time before we, like the citizens of ancient Rome, have a prime-time lineup of escalating brutality.

In 177 A.D., Athenagoras, a philosopher who converted to Christianity, wrote a letter to Emperor Marcus Aurelius exhorting him to reconsider the "contests of gladiators and wild beasts." Athenagoras suggested that there should be "guilt and pollution" over such spectacles. It would be nice if such a warning could excise that portion of our being that looks to human suffering as entertainment.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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