Reality TV: NBC Gets Cojones. Critics Get the Willies

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It used to be you had to go to a video store on the highway outside town, or pay ten bucks a month for premium cable, in order to watch anyone put genitalia in their mouths on television. In that sense, tonight's episode of "Fear Factor" on NBC will be a populist triumph. Free of charge, the weekly gross-out/stunt challenge, which has buried players under rats and bugs and dared them to eat roaches, will serve its players a plate of buffalo testicles.

The show, which has provided the nation's TV and cultural critics with healthy knickers-twisting exercise in the long summer spell between seasons of "Survivor," will no doubt continue to ride that virtuous cycle of reality TV (critics write angry columns, viewers tune in to see the train wreck) to yet another ratings peak. And — even though in some parts of the country people pay good money to eat buffalo testicles — this summer's round of "whither NBC?" talk will continue.

At the TV networks' summer press tour two weeks ago, NBC's new entertainment president Jeff Zucker appeared before a room of TV reporters in a bulletproof vest, literally armored against the inevitable attacks. Zucker has tried to shame critics into retreat by, in effect, telling them that if they don't like NBC's reality shows, they're doddering fossils: the shows do well among 18-to- 34-year-old viewers, the TV audience of the future, who don't include a lot of TV critics.

Zucker has a point: TV criticism, like most fields of punditry, is dominated by the middle-aged-and-above (and, incidentally, by the white and the male), many of whom have spent most of the cable era romanticizing 1950s TV, that Periclean era of "You Asked for It" and "Life with Luigi." But if it makes my elders any happier, "Fear Factor" and its NBC reality brother, "Spy TV," look no less crappy to this 33-year-old. Not because they're "mean-spirited" — at heart, they're no more misanthropic than your average episode of "Just Shoot Me," just a touch grosser but mercifully free of David Spade — but because they're unoriginal to the point of cynicism. "Spy TV," of course, is a smarmy rehash of "Candid Camera," while "Fear Factor" looks like someone decided to make "Survivor" without the expensive location shooting, complicated story editing, or in fact anything except the bug-eating and guys falling into campfires. (It's as if someone watched "CSI" and decided to copy it by airing a solid hour of ballistics tests.)

There's something unique and disproportionate, though, about the kind of revulsion that NBC's shows have inspired, even compared with other sleazy reality programs. Critics have always freely dissed Fox's quick-and-dirty reality specials. But when a critic falls onto his fainting couch over like "Temptation Island" or "When Good Pets Go Bad," there's rarely a sense of personal betrayal: it's what we People of Quality expect from Fox, don'tcherknow, that uncouth network with the cartoons and that Al Bundy character and that awful Mr. Murdoch fellow at the helm.

When NBC sullied its airwaves with the new reality shows, however, you'd think the Park Service had put Howard Stern on Mount Rushmore. TV critics used to gushing over safe, middlebrow NBC institutions like "Law and Order," "Friends" and "ER" treated Zucker like a traitor to his class. (This reaction seems especially strong among media circles in New York, where Zucker was regarded as a wunderkind for his work producing "Today.") Nancy Franklin, writing in the New Yorker, was not alone, but her reaction was perhaps the most representative and impassioned: "I have had a sense, mostly unconsciously, that NBC had a kind of solidity to it — that in the realms of news and entertainment its aim was basically true (even if its arrows were sometimes dull), and that there was a level below which it would not go. ... I just don't know who NBC is anymore. It's like finding out that a guy in a Brooks Brothers suit is wearing underpants that say 'Home of the Whopper.'"

Here's where Zucker's right about TV critics being out of touch, though probably not in a way that he wants to be right. The idea that NBC has some kind of Louvre-like institutional reputation, or that anyone but a handful of TV- industry watchers cares about NBC's reputation at all, is hogwash. The "level below which NBC would not go": would that be the godawful Aaron Spelling soap "Titans" from last season, or last year's "Tucker," the "Malcolm in the Middle" ripoff whose pilot had its boy hero trying to hide an erection from his mom? Or would it be "Real People," the cheesy reality program NBC aired 20 years ago, which once featured a man who ate dirt? Would it be "Caroline in the City"? "Baywatch"?

That any critics care about NBC's overall brand image — as if enough bollocks- eating on "Fear Factor" will somehow make us start to feel all skeevy about President Bartlet — shows that they're trapped in a mode of TV watching at least two decades outmoded. Your average viewer wouldn't care if broadcast networks ceased to exist, as long as the programming stayed on the air; the remote control long ago changed the notion of parking the TV on one channel all night, and with that went network loyalty. A retired Navy officer in Orange County creates his own de facto "network" every night (a little Bill O'Reilly, a little "JAG," a little History Channel), and a 15-year-old in New Jersey creates hers ("Popstars," the Britney Spears episode of MTV's "Becoming" and so on).

I do believe that shows like "Fear Factor," by obliterating the difference between network and cable programming, only make the vaunted network brands less important to average viewers, and thus hasten the ongoing downfall of the big broadcasters. But I also believe that that downfall is a good thing, because it's empowered niche audiences and thus made possible shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "South Park," which would have been unthinkable in the big- three-network era. And it's inevitable, anyway. I don't think Jeff Zucker would agree, but hey, it's not my job to see to it that he keeps his business afloat. If he wants sacrifice a few buffaloes' manhood to turn NBC into a cable channel that much faster, then I say more power to him.

The irony is that NBC has all but begged for the kind of critical perception of itself that led to critics' pained "Et tu, Jeff?" The network has for years crowned itself, Napoleon-style, as the "network of quality" (and upscale audiences) by showing college-educated, imported-car-driving audiences people who look just like themselves. (The connection between "classiness" and class is important here: it's perfectly apt, and no accident, that Franklin analogized NBC's programming to an expensive suit that presumably your average "Titus" viewer can't afford.)

"Friends" and "Frasier" indulged their love of nice furniture; "The West Wing" flattered their belief in meritocracy and the essential goodness of white-collar public servants; "Ed" reminded them of the sort of quaint town where they've stayed in B&B's; "Law & Order" provided a suitably upscale whodunit diversion for people who'd be too embarrassed to watch "Diagnosis: Murder" yet who didn't really like TV enough to follow the serial plots of "The X-Files." (Between "The West Wing" and "Law & Order," NBC now has two-thirds of the triumvirate of non-PBS shows for people who "never watch television," the other being "The Sopranos.")

All the while, NBC has self-congratulatingly hailed its Emmy-friendly but generally risk-averse programming like it was the collected works of Euripides. The apex, perhaps, has been its shameless black-and-white commercials for shows like "Frasier" and Will and Grace," complete with behind-the-scenes footage and soapy memory-lane music, which come across as if David Hyde Pierce were a beloved and recently assassinated world leader.

In this sense, "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV" aren't uncharacteristic of NBC at all; rather, they're exactly the kind of reality show you'd expect from NBC. The network has spent so much time blowing smoke up its own rear end about its scripted programming that it apparently doesn't think there can be such a thing as an original, quality reality show — though "Survivor" and TLC's "Junkyard Wars" are just two examples of precisely that. So instead the network, needing to catch up with the competition on reality programming, greenlighted the crassest and most derivative proposals to come down the pike; in NBC's apparent view, reality TV is all garbage anyway, but it seems to be what those young ruffians nowadays enjoy. (To Frasier Crane, there's no difference between "Eco- Challenge" and "Fear Factor" anyway.) The resulting series reek of this kind of behind-the-scenes snobbery; they're contemptuous of the reality genre, the participants and young viewers alike.

It's hard to fault NBC on that last score, of course, since "Fear Factor" and "Spy TV" are doing strong ratings against reruns in the summer and will almost certainly be back at some point during the regular season. And that might not be such a bad thing, whatever the People of Quality think of it. At best, maybe this new direction will mean that NBC is trying become a new version of Fox, combining a roster of disposable cheap thrills with a handful of higher-aiming (and higher-priced) scripted programming. (In the grand scheme of things, it was after all "When Animals Attack" that made possible the expensive, movie-like ambition of "The X-Files.") This won't make "Fear Factor" any better, but maybe it will free up NBC's remaining new scripted shows to be more risk-taking. And if "Spy TV" occupies the space that otherwise would have gone to the next "Titans," I'll call that an even trade.