Real bad: the backlash begins against exploitative tube trend

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As an usher in a friend's wedding party a week ago, I was hanging out in the bridal room waiting for the reception to begin. Mounted on one wall, for no apparent reason, was a closed-circuit TV trained on the lobby of the catering hall. And at any given time over the next hour, several ushers and bridesmaids stood transfixed in front of the screen, staring at silent, b&w images of guests coming and going.

Wow, I thought. Sign a few sponsor deals, add sound and color and you've got the next reality hit for a broadcast network.

Sound like a stupid idea? It is. Then again, just about every reality show to hit the small screen so far has been based on a stupid idea.

Just because the bridal party was watching the screen doesn't mean there was anything interesting on it. If there's no magazine in my briefcase, I can spend a full train ride reading the fine print on transit posters; it doesn't make the posters' content interchangeable with that of Time or The New Yorker.

Yet somehow we manage to equate reality shows with entertaining or informational programming. In actual reality, reality programming is a lazy, cheap way to draw eyeballs. Those eyeballs shouldn't even appeal to advertisers, since such shows seem to confirm the theory that viewers "zone out" in front of the tube. Zombies aren't exactly what you'd call choice consumers.

There was (and maybe still is) a very real danger that the reality trend was going to get way out of hand. Thankfully, there is already a backlash. While "Survivor" continues to command media attention, chances are ratings for the second show will be down sharply from the original series. "Big Brother" on CBS has been a ratings dud, although the network appears to be committed to a second try.

Now the dumbest, most crassly exploitative reality concept of all has met with the quick death it deserved, and the world is a better place for it.

Court TV actually thought it was a good idea to program an original series that featured nothing but the videotaped confessions of murderers and rapists. What fun! This is the type of entertainment product now being offered by a cable network with Time Warner as a parent. Henry Luce would no doubt puff out his chest with pride.

How anybody ever approved this idea is almost -- but unfortunately not quite -- beyond comprehension. In fact, the network's executives probably thought it was the greatest (and cheapest) reality concept of all. Let's at least hope no one was dumb enough to believe the show would ever be supported by mainstream marketers, even if it managed to draw more than a handful of viewers.

When Court TV pulled the plug after two episodes, network bosses actually expected a pat on the back for acting responsibly in the wake of criticism, thus nicely glossing over the fact that they had acted irresponsibly in putting the show on TV in the first place. You can bet that if the show had actually drawn millions of viewers, Court TV would still be running it -- and defending the concept.

Nearly a year ago in this space, I wrote that "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was an example of "brain-numbing TV at its absolute worst." Unfortunately, I was wrong. Fortunately, "Confessions" takes that honor with it to an early grave.

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