THIS WEEK MARKED A REALITY TV milestone: Los Angeles restaurateur Mike “Boogie” Malin threatened violence against one of the female houseguests on CBS’s Big Brother All-Stars, and the show’s producers did nothing obvious to stop it. According to the live feeds of the final-four showdown pitting two “hos” against two “bros” (their billing, not mine), Boogie made an obscenity-laced pledge to turn into a wild animal against cocktail waitress Janelle Pierzina if she used the all-important Power of Veto against his partner-in-reality, Will “Dr. Evil” Kirby, a Playa Vista dermatologist.
“If she votes you out,” he told his pal, “I’ll shit in her face. I’ll piss on her face right there on the block on TV.”
It was a dramatic change from five years ago when houseguest Nicole Schaffrich, pledged to “kick ass,” “slit wrists, horizontally, not vertically” and “cut heads off,” leading the show’s producers to warn her about her behavior. Back then, the contestants who used threats or intimidation toward other houseguests faced expulsion from the game (as happened with contestant Justin Sebik who, as part of what he called a joke, held a knife to a fellow contestant’s throat and asked her if she would get mad if he killed her. After she laughed, he put down the weapon and kissed her).
Now? CBS obviously felt that having a wild animal in the house spelled wild ratings.
For the first time in Reality TV history, not only did this season’s BB houseguests openly fret about the show’s popularity (because presumably their own 15 minutes of fame depend on it), but without any producers’ prodding they came up with skits, costumes and “showmances” to goose the ratings. During the week of August 21–27, three episodes of the show ended up in the Nielsen’s top 20. But Boogie’s tantrum didn’t look like shtick. With this latest untamed behavior, BB will surely climb into the top 10.
That Reality TV has become savage TV was underscored even further this week when Discovery Channel star Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray’s barb through his heart while filming a segment for a series called Ocean’s Deadliest. Lost amid the many tributes to the quirky “Crocodile Hunter” as an ardent conservationist were warnings that his death was a “sobering lesson” about TV gone too “gladiatorial.”
“He clearly took a lot of risks, and television encouraged him to do that,” Aussie survival expert Ray Mears told the media. “The voyeurism we are seeing on television has a cost, and it’s that cost Steve Irwin’s family are paying today.”
Now CBS’s Survivor: Cook Islands is plumbing new depths with its plot twist to pit four teams of different ethnicities — black, white, Asian and Latino — against each other. That the show is so desperate for eyeballs during its 13th season is hardly a surprise. What is startling, however, is that anyone would think this isn’t a pathetic ratings ploy to bait the contestants (handpicked, no doubt, for their racial intolerance into uttering previously taboo-on-TV racial epithets. C’mon, we all know that Mark Burnett will get a hard-on when the first “nigger” ?or “spic” or “gook” spews from a contestant’s mouth, only to be artfully bleeped so viewers can still understand ?the word.).
Going from primitive to plush, Survivor’s and Big Brother’s psychic sister is MTV’s Laguna Beach, which just started its third season with young girls savaging each other from the get-go. No need to build up to name calling this time around; cruelty is exactly what viewers come for. The show euphemistically calls it “drama,” but new bitches Kyndra and Cami are happiest when drawing blood. Laguna Beach’s summer spinoff The Hills suffered by comparison because it was too well behaved. The only reason to watch was in the vain hope that any minute L.C. would plunge a nail file into boyfriend Jason’s roaming eye.
Bravo’s Project Runway has succumbed to the new trend toward terrible. Show mentor Tim Gunn (as opposed to reality’s usual tormentor hosts) presided over a made-for-the-cameras scandal when contestant Keith Michael was ousted for keeping pattern books in his room and unauthorized use of the Internet. “Rules are rules,” Gunn told Michael. “You’ll leave tonight.” Host Heidi Klum gloated to Newsweek, “We have a great villain. You always hope for something like that.” But there were no repercussions for Jeffrey Sebelia, the show’s latest bad boy (as if that tattoo around his neck wasn’t a tip-off), when he browbeat and bullied his rival’s mother to the point of tears. Gee, Heidi, too bad he didn’t kick and maim her with his motorcycle boots as well.
On The Apprentice, Donald Trump has boasted, “I love neurosis. I love somebody that’s going crazy.” To achieve that, some contestants have accused the show of keeping them in a sleep-deprived, food-starved state of “constant nervous exhaustion where every waking moment was a crisis waiting to happen and every sleeping moment was monitored by hidden cameras and microphones placed in wafer-thin walls.”
SO THE QUESTION THAT BEGS ASKING: Are the contestants turned into psychos, or are they psychos waiting to happen? It wasn’t enough that “Boston” Rob Mariano lied his way through Survivor so that his showmance Amber Brkich could win the million-dollar prize. But CBS was so happy with this couple that viewers loved to hate, they unleashed them on The Amazing Race to do even more dastardly deeds — like driving past a rival duo’s rolled-over truck and a hurt cameraman. “There was no way we were stopping,” Rob said about the wreck as they zipped by.
CBS allowed the knife-wielding Sebik on Big Brother even though the network could have checked into Sebik’s criminal record and known he’d been arrested twice on assault charges. Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen stepped closer to the cliff’s edge on that score: the show purposely hired an ex-con as a contestant. The point presumably was that, every time he got angry (which was disturbingly often), viewers would wonder if he’d stick a shiv in someone.
MTV’s Real World: Key West has ratcheted up the danger factor from angry words to angry slaps to angry drunks. But to boost ratings for its 17th season, Real World:Key West just featured its most damaged cast member yet: Paula Meronek, whose host of problems included bulimia, depression, drinking and an abusive relationship. The show that once seriously delved into hot-button issues like homosexuality, AIDS, racism, religion and abortion was now purposely pushing someone’s buttons to have that person implode on air. (No doubt, Kurt Loder would narrate the MTV special about her suicide.)
Until now, the worst accusation against Reality TV, besides its obnoxious product placement and general dumb-assedness, was its obvious dishonesty.
Much has been written and aired about just how far contestants, editors and producers go in the name of big ratings, from reenacting scenes to falsely editing footage to bringing in professional writers to help contestants with their dialogue (prompting a public campaign to unionize the writers of reality television). New lingo like “overdubbing” and “frankenbiting” has emerged to describe Reality TV’s effective brand of manipulation. But the practices continue because these shows operate in complete secrecy. Contestants often sign ironclad nondisclosure forms, and the media are rarely allowed on the set or in the editing room during production.
Like all things Hollywood, what’s at stake is money, and gobs of it. CBS, for example, reportedly collects $390K for each 30-second spot during Survivor — although this year’s race-baiting season is losing sponsors like General Motors.
Back to Big Brother All-Stars, which concludes on September 12. Boogie used most of his time on national network television as an opportunity for guerrilla marketing his extensive L.A.-area restaurant network, which includes Dolce, Geisha House, Bella Cucina Italiana, and Les Deux (whose T-shirts he wears 24/7). “It’s our show, and these bitches think they’re going to steal it from us,” he told the cameras. It’s high time viewers steal it back. Since CBS and other networks won’t discipline Reality TV contestants for their brutal behavior, the audience needs to do it for them. Several Internet forums have suggested boycotting Boogie’s feeding troughs. That’s one way to tame this beast.