The punishing world of ‘Big Brother’ in prime time and off-camera at local news - The Buffalo News

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The punishing world of ‘Big Brother’ in prime time and off-camera at local news

Her name is Brittany Martinez. She was evicted from the “Big Brother” house on Thursday. Before that she did poorly in one of the show’s ersatz carnival games. The game, in this case, was both surreal and ridiculous in the “reality TV” style. It involved using a mechanical plastic foot contraption to kick a soccer ball into compartments offering points from one to 50.

Her punishment for doing it so poorly was to have to kick 2,400 goals with the soccer ball and her very real leg in a 24-hour period. The distance to be kicked wasn’t far, only about 15 or 20 feet. But the punishment seemed rather grueling to me. Think about repeating any mildly exerting physical motion at all 2,400 times in a 24-hour period.

“Reps,” the athletes call them – short for repetitions.

If you’re a Buffalo Bill getting in shape for the season, OK. If you’re just some self-dramatizing middle-American narcissist from Torrance, Calif., who thinks nothing of presenting the worst possible version of yourself on television for $500,000, it’s probably a wee bit more harsh than necessary.

I don’t know about you but I’m not a viewer in the market for utterly needless suffering on the average Wednesday night.

As the “Big Brother” contestant complained on camera about understandable pains in her toes and feet after a while, I was brought up short by the realization of just how international so many of these reality shows are. We Americans are more hypocritical about inflicting needless cruelty on one another for an evening’s entertainment. It’s not really in our TV history – not to that degree anyway.

“Big Brother,” remember, was not an American invention. And it currently exists on TV in countries around the world, as do so many reality TV shows. “Big Brother” comes from Dutch television mogul John De Mol. It was invented in the Netherlands in 1999, a year before it traveled here.

It helps to remember that decades before that, Japanese game shows became internationally notorious for the amount of physical and psychological cruelty and, especially, humiliation their “contestants” were forced to endure. In a society so rigidly devoted to maintaining “face” amid dense overcrowding, contestants endured wanton assaults on their identity for the sake of viewers’ home amusement.

I’m sure some sociologist somewhere in Japan has a list of hara-kiri victims that might possibly be attributed to Japanese television, but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t have those figures at my fingertips.

Let me hasten to say I am not in the slightest postulating the moral superiority of American TV. But I am saying that American TV advertisers historically preferred a “nicer” programming climate for selling their wares to suburban consumers.

Historically, the misery on our game shows used to come through the revelation of the terrible lives people brought with them into the TV studio – lives that, in our national naiveté, would be magically put to rights by Jack Bailey and Monty Hall with a washer, a dryer, a new motor scooter and a fur from Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills.

We Americans used to prefer to be nice.

That blast of uncut misery still survives in the “before” packages on “America’s Got Talent” and “Dancing With the Stars” – the grim background stories that suddenly are effaced by joy when the reality show contestant performs for the home viewers.

On the other side of international reality TV, things are different. On “Survivor,” you have to sleep outdoors in the rain and ingest indigestible stuff considered delicacies by other cultures far, far away. On “American Idol,” you used to have to listen to Simon Cowell explain in sadistic, dismissive detail why your singing ambitions provided raucous comedy for the gods (including the recording world’s idea of Jove himself, Clive Davis).

On “America’s Got Talent” it used to be Piers Morgan’s job to bring pitiless British rudeness to the deluded whose family and friends and neighbors had neglected to tell they them they were either unlistenable or unwatchable or both.

In the living room patches where the best American couch potatoes were grown, we were now being royally entertained by the snotty loutishness of foreigners wielding the truth unceremoniously.

Well, some of us were anyway. Let me confess that I seldom, if ever, touched the stuff myself.

What was most startling about “Survivor” and “Big Brother” is its harrowing allegory of life in corporate culture. Every time a sitcom presumes to show us life in an office – even on such favorites as “30 Rock” and “The Office” – I found myself hopelessly put off by the trivializing and unreal jokes.

As all of its watchers know, “Big Brother” comes much closer to recognizable office culture in America – the overly vivid people brought together randomly to engage in bonding, backbiting and treachery. Alliances are forged and then thrown away freely. Romances become “showmances,” more for the sake of onlookers than the supposedly smitten participants. Terminal offenders against the ever-shifting social climate are smugly said to be playing an inadequate “social game” and are then evicted from the house. (Or the island.)

It’s a high school where the mean girls and the bullying jocks have taken over and are running things. TV’s reality shows are everyone’s office where the top four levels of civility have been removed and replaced by the exhibitionism of people who think that in the America we now live in, 15 minutes of fame – even if it’s only infamy – are the only way to be fulfilled.

With all of that, how dearly I wish that instead of having to watch the current inhabitants of season 16 of “Big Brother,” we’d been able to watch one of the greatest of all off-camera reality shows in the world of contemporary local television – the behind-the-scenes office dramas at Channel 4 news.

With the exception of the Hamburg School Board, here was one of the more puzzling centers of local dysfunction around. The word that came down last week is that after years – literally – of being the focus of harrowing tales told out of school, Channel 4’s former news director Joseph Schlaerth left the station’s employ.

Couchbound scholars of the world of “Big Brother” can, of course, explain at length how the most likely candidates for banishment and disappearance in any corporate culture can survive for bafflingly long periods of time by virtue of others’ folly.

Think of those at Channel 4 news who have evicted themselves from their own local house of Big Brother in the last few years – John Murphy and Paul Peck of the station’s sports department, and Diana Fairbanks, the best anchor presence the station has had since Carol Jasen.

One has to wonder if the former management team of Chris Musial and Joseph Schlaerth had left Channel 4 much earlier when the news department’s “contestants” were being forced (metaphorically) to ingest the indigestible and to kick 2,400 goals in a 24-hour period, if the station’s formerly dominant on-air staff would still be intact.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing if we’d been able to see all these years the off-camera shenanigans in the Channel 4 newsroom that factored into the Exodus?

What a show that would have been.


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