Rumbles in the reality TV jungle

Hungry for new extremes of TV tackiness? Want to see some tired celebrities getting thumped? Seconds out for Paula Jones, Tonya Harding and Celebrity Boxing.
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The Independent Online

You've already heard of the celebrity nervous breakdown on Big Brother. Maybe you've heard of the beautiful people gagging on maggots in the South Seas, or the woman who married a putative millionaire in Las Vegas two hours after clapping eyes on him, or the couples who routinely humiliate themselves by consenting to be chained together, or even the British volunteers who have been recreating the First World War front-line "experience" for the BBC's impending The Trench. All of them have been done to boost prime-time television ratings.

You've already heard of the celebrity nervous breakdown on Big Brother. Maybe you've heard of the beautiful people gagging on maggots in the South Seas, or the woman who married a putative millionaire in Las Vegas two hours after clapping eyes on him, or the couples who routinely humiliate themselves by consenting to be chained together, or even the British volunteers who have been recreating the First World War front-line "experience" for the BBC's impending The Trench. All of them have been done to boost prime-time television ratings.

We are all, in one way or another, familiar with the excesses and grotesqueries of reality TV. Every time a new programme comes out, we are pushed to ask ourselves: is there anything left to scrape at the bottom of this particularly putrid barrel? And, every time, the television bosses manage to come back with the answer: yes, there is.

With that caveat in mind, here is a public service announcement. It will probably come as music to the ears of bad-taste junkies, ratings-watchers and those smooth-tongued, wide-tied executives responsible for the ever-varying display of tabloid-inspired toxic mayhem infesting our television screens these days. No matter, here it is. Tonight, on the Fox channel in the US, reality television is set to hit a new all-time low.

The programme is called Celebrity Boxing, which pretty much sums it up. The one-hour special promises a line-up of celebrities in the ring (or, more accurately, washed-up names from the pages of tabloids past), some outsized boxing gloves and helmets to avoid all but the most deliberate injuries, a professional referee and, as ringside attractions, a couple of Playboy models. The climax of the show will see Tonya Harding – she of Olympic skating infamy, the nobbling of her rival Nancy Kerrigan's kneecaps by her ex-boyfriend – duke it out with Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman who swore she saw a tattoo on Bill Clinton's penis even as she claimed she was resisting his advances in a hotel room during the 1992 presidential election campaign. Ahead of them will be duelling has-beens from 1970s family sitcoms (Danny Bonaduce, who played Danny on The Partridge Family, vs Barry Williams, who was Greg Brady in The Brady Bunch), the rap star Vanilla Ice and a B-grade television actor called Todd Bridges.

It gets juicier. Paula Jones is actually a late recruit, since Harding's opponent was originally slated to be Amy Fisher, aka the Long Island Lolita, the one-time teenage heart-throb and US tabloid sensation who had an affair with a married car mechanic called Joey Buttafuoco and ended up firing a shotgun into Mrs Buttafuoco's face. Fisher has been out of prison for a couple of years (lucky for her, the missus survived) and, to believe the Fox executives, was all peachy-keen for the opportunity to get back into the public limelight. But then her parole officer spoiled it all and refused to give her permission to travel to California for the taping. That's life, baby.

Celebrity Boxing is causing a stir like nothing since the small-screen fiasco of a couple of years ago called Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? The premise of that show was that an unattached, good-looking rich guy would take his pick from an array of 50 luscious ladies in various states of dress and undress, decide which one of them he would like to propose to and then, if accepted, go through with a quickie ceremony at a Las Vegas wedding chapel. The problem was, the "rich guy" who charmed his way on to the show and into hasty matrimony was not a millionaire at all, but a failed entertainer with a police record for the assault of an old girlfriend. The blonde Californian babe dumb enough to get hitched to him live on air, a Los Angeles nurse called Darva Conger, was so appalled by what she had done she abandoned him before the all-expenses-paid Caribbean honeymoon had even started. And then, traumatised by the experience, not to mention fired from her job for the dreadful publicity she generated, Conger did the only sensible thing for a woman in her position: she begged the media to leave her alone, and promptly stripped off her undies for Playboy magazine.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the conceptual inspiration behind both Millionaire and Celebrity Boxing (one hesitates to say "genius", though some will want to call him that) is from the same man. Mike Darnell, officially known as director of alternative programming for Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, is the self-confessed sicko who previously gave the world such programmes as When Good Pets Go Bad and Alien Autopsy. Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? was a setback to an otherwise irresistible upward career trajectory.

Fox was forced to cancel a planned rerun of the show, and made Darnell promise never to make another one like it, leading to a brief hiatus in which others managed to steal some of his thunder. (CBS came up with Survivor, a rethink of Castaway set in the tropics that proved as popular in the States as Big Brother in Britain, while NBC spawned Chains of Love, an SM-tinged dating show.)

Recently, however, Darnell has proved he is back with a vengeance. First came Temptation Island, last year's lowbrow sensation, in which young, apparently happy couples had their fidelity tested by assignations with hot young swimwear models offering to slurp champagne cocktails out of their belly-buttons. Now, Celebrity Boxing is leading the charge for a whole roster of new ideas plucked from his fevered brain. Already, Fox viewers have had a foretaste of The Chamber, a quiz show in which contestants have to answer questions while being subjected to indignities just one whit short of torture. They are hooked up to electrodes delivering muscle contractions; they are subjected to shooting flames and 65C heat, followed by freezing blasts of water and temperatures of -30C; and they are shaken from side to side in simulation of an earthquake measuring nine on the Richter scale. The show performed somewhat short of expectations in previews in January, and is now temporarily off the air, but Fox is talking about bringing it back; Darnell is thinking of spicing it up with further torments, including insects, dizzy-making machines and vats of water, ducking-stool style.

Then, later this spring, there will be Love Cruise, in which eight single men and eight single women on board ship pair off for 48 hours, their every move tracked by television cameras and boom mikes in hot anticipation of a romantic connection. An Entertainment Weekly reporter who visited the set last year overheard the producer, Kathy Wetherell, joke to her boss: "This is great TV... if you're a whore." A few moments later, Wetherell apparently shook her head and muttered: "I'm going to hell."

Well might one wonder, to survey this lurid spectacle on the nation's television sets, what exactly America has learnt from the sobering tragedies of 11 September. Solemnity is certainly not on the list; the best that one can say, perhaps, is that the country has honed its already well-established proclivity for escapism, and the more mindless the better. Darnell's boss at Fox's entertainment division, Sandy Grushow, opined after the Millionaire fiasco that reality programming was the crack cocaine of network television: very addictive, dangerously cheap, but ultimately so harmful as to be utterly counterproductive. (It is striking, too, how untitillating and uninteresting a lot of these shows are to watch, no matter how lurid the concept.) Unfortunately, it seems Grushow himself has fallen under the spell of the drug, since he is still in his job and Darnell is running wilder than ever. "It looks good, it feels good," Darnell said on the set of Love Cruise, and no doubt he feels the same way about the rest of his progeny.

It seems appropriate that all this should be happening on the network belonging to Rupert Murdoch, the media proprietor who invented the Page Three girl and never let any pretence at seriousness get in the way of a deeply populist, anti-establishment and anti-intellectual agenda. Fox is a curious hybrid, as networks go. Along with the shameless dreck – the network equivalent of dwarf-tossing and two-headed women – it is also responsible for some of the most attractively unusual programmes on US television, from The Simpsons and Ally McBeal, to the current sensation, a real-time thriller played out over a single day entitled 24. The Fox News cable channel, meanwhile, is rapidly encroaching on CNN's territory by blending up-and-down headline story coverage with more unorthodox news-gathering (for example, sending the talk-show host Geraldo Rivera into Afghanistan with an assault rifle and a vow to "get" Osama bin Laden) and provocative right-wing ranting by chat-show hosts specialising in the humiliation of their invited guests. Whatever its merits, this is a network where the borderline between information and entertainment, between bona fide content and insidious exploitation, is constantly being crossed.

One trembles to imagine what might come next. Strip poker with former luminaries of the Clinton White House, perhaps? Captured al-Qa'ida fighters wrestling nude in a vat of butter icing? On second thoughts, it's probably best not to speculate on such things in public. Given the way Darnell works, idle talk could just transform a kooky idea into a proposal, a proposal into a package, and a package into a prime-time orgy of grimly addictive inanity coming soon to a television screen near you.

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