REVIEW / The storm-troopers of the ratings war

BUTCH Phillips is my sort of man of God. His previous experience includes selling insurance and second-hand cars as well as working as a private investigator - and he now combines his ministry with storm-chasing, a bizarre form of meteorological train-spotting that involves pursuing tornadoes for up to 700 miles around the American Midwest. Butch isn't much use on Sundays, for obvious reasons, but for the rest of the week he is one of the more valued members of Channel 5's 'First Alert Storm Team', putting his grandmammy's ancient Indian wisdom at the service of the local network's viewing figures. A good storm-chaser is guaranteed box-office - if you live in Oklahoma's Tornado Alley you watch the weather report not to find out if you should carry an umbrella tomorrow but to see if pigs might fly.

Butch doesn't make any explicit connection between his religion and his passion for storms (though he does bless his car before setting out - 'Christ says that we command angels . . . We're actually talking about each one of us having at our disposal 72,000 angels'). Even the most agnostic person, though, might rapidly develop religious instincts when face to face with a tornado. Encounters' engagingly weird documentary (C 4 Sunday) included some wonderful video footage that conveyed the splendour of the things - a Biblical vision of a pillar of smoke hanging from louring clouds, a vision of God having the mother of all temper tantrums.

Not all of those haring down the interstate are professionals; tornadoes attract the passionate amateur as well, including the avant-garde film-maker George Kuchar, who holes up in an Okie motel once a year and waits to be rained on. He can't drive, which is something of a handicap for a storm-chaser and leaves him at the mercy of chance - the previous year, he recalled, the most exciting event was being invited by his motel neighbour to help in a hunt for pubic lice. 'Believe it or not, not a lot of them are real social,' said Butch about his colleagues, though, as the film proved, they do occasionally meet up to drink beer, talk gust-fronts and swap pictures of cloud formations.

The United States of Television (C 4 Saturday) continues to provide a compulsively watchable warning of how low unregulated broadcasting can sink. 'It's tahm wunce agin fer the award-winning Catch a Crook,' announced a down-home voice over grainy footage of cops. 'And here we go wun more tahm looking fer alleged law- breakers. Come along with us, won't yew?' Filmed and edited by the Houston Police, Catch a Crook is a bizarre mix of Clint Eastwood wisecracks and home video, but it taps into one of American television's biggest growth areas - reality programming, which delivers raw urban terror into every suburban home. You can watch anything it seems, from terrified emergency calls to the police re-enactment of a murder by the killers themselves, in this case two scaringly affectless teenagers who had choked a girl to death. 'What did you say then?' asked an off-camera voice after they had swung the life-size dummy into the bushes. 'She's dead]' replied one, with a perky job-well-done intonation.

Presented by Laurie Kightlinger, in a manner I take to be an unwise satire on android presenter-style, this channel- flicking compilation proves once again that America has the largest natural reserves of self-abasement in the world. I know we're not far behind in this matter, what with Kilroy and The Word, but the willingness of American citizens to parade their shame or grief or oddity in return for a few minutes on screen remains a thing of wonder. 'I'm very political, socially conscious,' said a young man under whom ran the caption 'Vlad, self-professed vampire, drinks his wife's blood'. 'These are porcelains,' he explained, tapping a canine tooth like an ice-pick. The vampire next to him sighed disapprovingly, suggesting that cosmetic dentistry was a fraught issue for the undead. And this was just a droplet from the electronic Niagara that thunders from the screens every day.

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