"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 August 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Reality Bites


These days you can't eat a dead rat without hitting a gang of experts explaining the rise of reality TV. Celebrity fatigue, celebrity envy, the rise of cable, the dwindling value of a million dollars: All these factors have been advanced to explain why reliably stolid networks have turned into forums for the kind of stunts you used to have to seek out on Telemundo variety shows.

But the real culprit is right on your desktop. The internet's decentralized sprawl of news, factoids, myths, and legends has finally attracted the kind of greedy developers it deserves. Entertainment historians may look back on this TV season as the decisive moment when programmers admitted their imaginations had been hopelessly outflanked. With CBS looking to form franchise supergroups and further circumscribe the range of actual reality, the transformation is nearly complete. NBC will throw in the towel next fall, when it's expected to unveil Chains of Love, a Survivor offspring in which four men are chained to a woman who, one by one, votes them off the chain. (To be fair, Chains sounds less like the current crop of reality programs than like the game show Kevin's parents watch in Time Bandits.) Has all this really been inspired by The Real World's disposable attractions and COPS' real-time drunk tank, or was it the brief romance of Mike and Dianne that really hinted at the world of abasement than lies in the heart of every amateur performer? Executives see a vast parade of non-union talent vying for the network equivalent of Klondike bars. Offer them the stray, unrealistic chance at a million (pre-tax) dollars, and wannabes line up like so many dancing chickens.


As overall network viewership continues its decline, survey after survey blames the internet, with its unending stream of news, entertainment, interaction, and cheap pornography. Paranoid right-wing talk shows, offering their own low budget reality programming, have stoked suspicions about media bias, and there's a growing and probably justified skepticism about the political process. Endless alternatives leave hapless network executives grappling helplessly for a surefire attraction — like the ship in The Perfect Storm, adrift on a vast ocean of uncivilized content with no rescuers in sight. In fact, The Perfect Storm exemplifies the quandry of entertainment industry. It's "based on a true story," but still naggingly virtual. Even the bright, gracefully arcing waves lend an over-the-top realism that's startlingly unrealistic. Big budgets are automatically suspect in this post-entertainment world, where an instinctive distrust of the media leaves audiences uninterested in gratuitously fine-toothed renditions. Of course, there are always a few hold-outs who wouldn't tune in unless the last survivor was Gilligan. But how long can audiences stay content with dramedy, or news, or Candid Camera, or battles of the networks stars, when there's a genre that fuses all of them?

The final battlefield may be the web itself, where old media forces have finally regrouped and launched a belated, vainglorious effort to colonize. Star Search host Ed McMahon boasted to Reuters that the internet "is the next big thing, and I'm in it." ABC may offer Making the Band, but McMahon executed a 40-city bus tour promoting a recent web-cast at NextBigStar.com. AOL, meanwhile, claims a record for "the most simultaneous Webcast streams to viewers" at its Big Brother site (suspiciously failing to provide any numbers). And since the success of The Blair Witch Project may have been fueled in part by its web site, the film's production company simply adopted the name of their new web site — FreakyLinks.com — as the title of its upcoming Fox TV series. Unfortunately, despite its pounding backbeat and an optimistic stab at e-commerce called the "freak store," the site's gritty edge of reality gets dulled by some euphonious legalese: "Freakylinks, its parent company, freakylinks Inc, and their assigns and/or agents make no representation as to the validity, truthfulness or accuracy of anything presented herein..."

Even movie studios have gotten into the act. To hype X-Men, Fox created a series of fake anti-mutant television commercials touting a dummy web site. Sony is offering press junkets to movie sites in order to promote Hollow Man. But the web's original settlers seem to have a head start. The man behind "The Origin of the Car-in-The-Cliff Legend" — CarInTheCliff@hotmail.com — claims he's already optioned the screenplay rights. And though she's only recently offered streaming footage, boyfriend-stealer Jennifer Ringley is already said to have inspired the screenwriters for both EdTV and The Truman Show (That both these films already seem as dated as Edison one-reelers underscores what a hard time Hollywood is having keeping up).


One cable exec cites Ringley's site as proof that "the Internet can be stunningly immoral" — offering instead proof that Hollywood perceptions can be stunningly off-target. Few May-December romances are as embarrasing as the one between old media money and new media skills. Take the case of Goosehead.com, a youth portal that answers the age-old question: What do you get when you cross Jon Benet Ramsey with Salon? The site features 15-year-old Ashley Power in streaming vignettes written and directed by her step-father Mark Schilder, along with a series of features he described to the New York Times as "Ashley dealing with her own sexuality, trying to show another side of herself." It's an instructive example of the faulty logic that spawns these bloated content plays. A quick Lexis search shows the same stepfather — or at best, a composite of wacked out entrepreneurs all sharing the same name — following a trajectory that consistently misses the fringes of glamour. Before a stint at a washable tattoo company, the Orange County Register found Schilder in 1987 crafting a 35' x 10' painting from celebrities' toothbrushes. ("Aaron Spelling's toothbrush gave me the encouragement I needed to get started, while Michael J. Fox's toothbrush gave the project a legitimacy with other celebrities...") Now equipped with a web domain registered to a P.O. box by a strip mall in Studio City, he's staked his hopes on his step-daughter's portal, which the Times notes "has yet to make a profit." The dotcom dead pool favorite employs a staff of 22 full-time and 11 part-time employees, with an audience we estimate at best at a few tens of thousands. (Goosehead reported 100,000 hits in its press release, which the Times apparently conflated into an astounding 100,000 daily visitors...)

Of course, it was also the Times that fell for the hoax about a web site where fashion models hawked their eggs — a dizzying victory for new media over old, but not the first. Footage of faux stalker site " For the Love of Julie" proved real enough to convince the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Departments somebody need to get leaned on.

But even if you can still put one over on Big Brother's dirt-dull inmates, the web has brought the golden age of the hoax to an abrupt end. With so many discredited stories already littering the first draft of history, who cares if your web shrine to Bernie Kopell is an honest act of worship or just a clever prank? Sadder still, it's the web that often uncovers the damning information that's never aired on TV. The triumphant re-broadcast of Fox's Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire was scuttled altogether when The Smoking Gun dug up groom Rockwell's restraining order. In the worst cases, the result is a smartypants double whammy, in which web jokers trick old media, then other web jokers gloat over old media's embarrassment.


And the web leaves no place to hide from your well-deserved humiliation. When network executives refused to air a Tivo ad that made fun of network executives, it turned up on AdCritic.com. Back in January Tabloid.Net even settled a lawsuit against advertisers hired by the Florida Citrus Board alleging they'd lifted a talking ham sandwich character directly from their site. But the ultimate endorsement of the web may come from AskOJ.Com, a site which needs no comment — though we're disappointed that the Juice Shop area doesn't seem to offer Bruno Magli shoes.

In the end, though, it's not tricks or spoilers that spell doom for traditional entertainment. Everyone wants a piece of the action, which in itself creates its own meta-opportunity. Whether it's Dean Martin hand puppets or Alice Cooper's drummer selling real estate, the internet already offers a constantly replenished trough of entertainment, all of it reasonably priced at $0.00. Throwing money at the problem only ensures the problem will survive long after the tribal council's last ruling. Corporations lined up to sponsor "The Dotcom guy" during his year online, and according to Reuters, ZDTV.com has even launched a show where "desperate dot-com wannabes present their ideas to a stoic panel of venture capitalists..." But whatever they come up with, manufactured strangeness will always have to compete with the real thing. The killer content application turns out to be the network of other internet users, a Napster of verité where reality-starved gawkers swap glimpses into their lives — and their perspectives on a dying media. No matter what outré ratings killer television comes up with next, there will be another, weirder one coming down the pipeline faster than you can say " Carnie Wilson's stomach surgery."

courtesy of Destiny
picturesTerry Colon