Infidelity and weddings have long been ratings grabbers on TV. But now a network is trying to manufacture one at the expense of the other - with a twist. The morality play stars real couples.
Starting tomorrow, Fox debuts its much-hyped reality series "Temptation Island" - where four unmarried couples head to a tropical island with 26 singles put there to test the strength of true love.
Thanks to provocative promotional ads, the program is already getting boos from the clergy and parent groups and raising questions about how far these shows will go to manipulate reality.
"Now there's a sense that all bets are off," says Prof. Robert Thompson, a pop-culture expert. "It's the ultimate set up. Talk about the devil's workshop."
Billed as the most daring reality show ever, "Temptation Island" is a product of the current reality-TV blitz that began when Americans flocked to their televisions last summer to watch "Survivor" on CBS. Along with "Temptation Island," Fox also has romance-themed "Love Cruise" in the hopper, where 16 singles with access to alcohol and one another cavort on the high seas. UPN has picked up "Chains of Love," which shackles four singles to a member of the opposite sex.
But it's "Temptation Island," the first off the blocks, that has some people shaking their heads in disbelief. Ethicists question whether it will cause Americans to place less value on trust in relationships. And at least two watchdog groups - the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association - have posted notices on their websites asking people to call Fox and protest.
In Dallas, Rabbi Kenneth Roseman mailed more than a thousand letters to his congregation at Temple Shalom and other clergy last month encouraging them to do the same.
"It's an assault on relationships," says Rabbi Roseman.
Moral outrage or morality play?
Besides breaking couples up in the name of ratings, he says, the program also challenges the work clergy and other professionals do to repair damaged relationships. "I'm not prepared to take that lying down. There are so many of us that work so hard to strengthen American families," he says, noting that nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce in the US.
Fox is encouraging people not to make judgments based on promotional ads - which executive producer Chris Cowan says are meant to create a stir and don't reflect the nature of the entire series. Fox officials also maintain that the show is not about sex.
It does have titillating and sensational elements, Mr. Cowan says, but does not cross the line. "The concept to me is not about breaking people up, but it's about putting people into a moral dilemma and seeing what decisions they make," he says. One of the biggest misconceptions, he says, is that "we went out and cast 26 nubile singles to go in and try to seduce and break up relationships."
"I don't believe the couples are victims," Cowan adds. "They're very strong, confident, resourceful ... people who made the decision to come on this show."
The four pairs, who receive a small fee but no cash prizes, have been together from 1-1/2 to 5 years. They and the singles were put through a battery of interviews, and psychological and physical tests (including for AIDS) before heading off for two weeks in paradise.
Each week, the couples - separated after the first day - go on dates and vote those singles they find least compatible off the island. They also have the option to watch videos of what their significant other is doing at a similar resort on the other side of the island.
"I didn't expect this level of temptation," says one beau in a Fox ad. "This could rip two people apart," says one of the women.
"Temptation Island" could prompt interesting discussion about morals in society and in relationships, Cowan suggests. But at what cost to the couples - who may or may not have realized what they were getting into - and the public, ask ethicists.
One message the program can't help but send is "Doesn't everyone do it?" notes Prof. Lawrence Hinman, director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego. In turn, viewers could lose trust in themselves and others. "People probably won't initially think less of themselves," he says, "but they will probably think less of the people they care about."
Indeed, ads tell viewers to "Watch it with someone you think you love."
The network of "COPS" was pushing the limits on reality television long before "Survivor" became a buzzword.
After the "Who wants to Marry a Multimillionaire" debacle last February, when the millionaire had fewer millions and more restraining orders than the network knew about, it swore off exploitative shows. But that was before reality-TV became The Next Big Thing.
"It was an absurd promise for them to make, because they had to know they couldn't keep it," says Professor Thompson at the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "You knew it couldn't be true because it's their franchise."
Some standards left
Fox has shown some restraint, backing away from specials like "World's Nastiest Neighbors" and "Cheating Spouses Caught on Tape," which UPN picked up and had its best Friday night ratings of the season.
And it has company in the enticing-to-break-up department. One half-hour show, "Change of Heart," also encourages couples to go out with other people.
In the end, it's the unpredictability of reality programs that grab us, Thompson says. "When all is said and done, it's a pretty fascinating way to tell a story," he says. "As bad as that sounds, you're thinking, 'What time is that on again?' "
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society