Hussein, Bush, and reality TV

I'm beginning to think the term "reality TV" is deceptive. "Tunnel vision TV" would be more accurate. While programs such as "Temptation Island" and "The Bachelor" use real people instead of actors, their view of what's happening in the world is not presented through a wide-angle lens.

A space alien channel surfing through the nightly program lineup might assume the most pressing issue in America these days is the unpredictable emotional web of male-female relationships. Who would have dreamed the dating format could be reconfigured into so many variations?

The promotional spots ABC produced for "The Last Resort" are especially compelling. Several troubled couples have been transported to idyllic locations and then, the announcer proclaims, "They have five days to make it or break it!"

The premise is not inherently banal, but I think it would have been much more interesting if ABC had set its sights higher and found a way to get President Bush and Saddam Hussein together in a beachfront lanai for a week.

I'm sure the producers would consider the idea to be totally unrealistic, so here is my fallback suggestion: How about a show set in Kabul that follows our troops around as they try to rebuild Afghan society?

We are, after all, engaged in a global war against a terrorist organization that killed thousands of people in one day. And we're trying to topple a tyrant in Iraq without angering millions of followers of Islam, a religion many non-Muslims still find baffling and frightening. All of which is complicated by the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

But the TV business has a longtime habit of keeping politically charged issues on the fringes of the schedule. Programming priorities today aren't much different from the early 1960s, when networks began phasing out inventive shows such as "Playhouse 90" and "See It Now" in favor of silly sitcoms ("The Beverly Hillbillies") and hip detectives ("77 Sunset Strip").

Oops. My familiarity with those old titles will tip the industry off to the fact that I'm demographically insignificant, well past the economically vital population bubble of 18- to 34-year-olds, so my opinions really don't matter.

And I'm pretty sure I know what the network executives would say about the topics I've mentioned. "You're an idealist, Mr. Shaffer, and we love it. Unfortunately, hardly anyone watches shows about foreign policy or cultural subjects so we'd lose money and that's bad for the shareholders."

In commercial broadcasting, ratings and revenue always trump substance. But anyone who supports this doctrine needs to be reminded of one crucial fact: Nobody owns the airwaves. Networks are licensed by the FCC to operate in the public interest. They were never intended to be corporate cash machines. I just wonder how many producers and viewers these days have any clear concept of what the public interest really is, let alone how it can be served responsibly.

And that is the sad, ongoing reality of prime-time TV.

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