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Television's "booby Trap"

An interesting article in yesterday's Times probed the intersection of predation and profit in entertainment. Since the hand-crank days of COPS, Candid Camera, and Temptation Island (even that dreck now seems painfully analog), reality television has gone through an industrial revolution of sorts, producing a robust market for regular people behaving very badly. Some documentary-style contests have been wonderfully meritocratic--the original Iron Chef, the Emmy-winning Amazing Race, and Project Runway come to mind--but these days, most reality shows thrive solely on debasement.

The traffic in shamelessness could cause some tricky math among studio heads. A court ruled last month on the suicide of a man electronically ambushed by television producers and exposed as a pedophile on-air, giving the man's sister standing to sue NBC--to the tune of $100 million. The Times cites the recurring segment as

based on an ugly premise. The show lures people into engaging in loathsome activities. It then teams up with the police to stage a humiliating, televised arrest, while the accused still has the presumption of innocence.

Of course, this particular case (oddly appropriate today) stinks of entrapment--but isn't this the genesis of all reality television? Z-listers offer up their "services" freely, or at least in pursuit of some oversized victory check. Delighted producers discover that the “talent” is increasingly willing to do or say anything (at cost!), inching closer to the conduct described in the NBC lawsuit as

so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.

Kind of like this?

Anyway, the New York judge has opened the door--and payback is a bitch. Here I’m happy to be able to reference Cheaters, potentially the most shameless show on television. The Cheaters host, while exposing one horrified adulterer after another, often exhibited the same smug expression worn by, say, Eliot Spitzer until yesterday morning. When he was stabbed on-air in 2005 by an irate participant (contestant?), it was one hint that even the most debased of the televised hordes may avail themselves of a warm rush of schadenfreude.

--Dayo Olopade