Viewer Discretion Advised:

Reality-based programs stoop to new low.
by Kirk Noonan

Professing Christian, Jason Guy (far right) is all smiles on Big Brother 3.

The game seemed simple enough. Match two animals and move onto the next round. But there was a catch, the contestants on NBC's Fear Factor had to eat a reproductive part of the male animal (a deer, an elk, a bull or a water buffalo) they had matched. Welcome to primetime "reality" television.

"Unfortunately, while the reality craze has gone from fad to fixture, the quality of programming has gone from bad to worse," says Brent Bozell, president of Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council, a group that aims to make television a socially responsible entertainment medium. "Many reality shows particularly those airing on cable wallow in offensive content."

MTV proves Bozell's point with this season's Real World: Las Vegas, a program that captures the hedonistic lives of seven 20-somethings rooming together on the 28th floor of the Palms Hotel and Casino in an ultra-sleek suite. During a typical episode cast members pontificate about life's issues and each other, argue, plan parties for a nightclub and indulge in fantasies. For some of the cast that includes graphic romantic forays with their roommates even those of the same sex.

The draw to reality-based programming for some viewers is voyeurism. But for major network and cable channel bosses the high ratings, relatively low expense of producing such programs and the ability to make a lot of money make business sense. Though some reality-based programs are tame and even educational, critics claim that many are filled with crude humor, crass behavior, dangerous stunts and heavy sexual content even during primetime.

Harsh Reality: Unscripted TV Offensive to Families is a study conducted by PTC. Of the broadcast networks, NBC and UPN's reality series were graded with the highest level of offensive content, with 19 and 14.9 instances of offensive content per hour respectively. Of the cable networks, VH1 and MTV contained the most offensive content at 39.7 and 36.1 instances per hour, respectively.

Because cable programmers are more than willing to step over the line of decency in their bid to attract viewers, some experts say, major television networks are forced to resort to sleazy content to ensure that viewers don't switch channels and take advertising dollars with them.

"The main reason raunchy television is accepted is because of cable television," says Stephen Winzenberg, 47, associate professor of communications at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. "It [cable television] has grown to where more than 80 percent of people in the country now have access. The main networks think they have to put on stuff that is going to match cable programming in order to keep an audience."

As programs become raunchier year by year Winzenberg says viewers, even Christian viewers, are becoming desensitized.

"Viewers don't realize the subtle impact [raunchy and violent programming] is having on them," he says, noting that Christian viewers who are exposed to such programming eventually become callous to objectionable material. "Instead of reacting to sin with shock and disgust they shrug their shoulders and say that's the way the world is.

"They overemphasize grace and underemphasize personal responsibility," he says. "That's a direct result of watching too much television."

Christians on reality TV

Though reality-based programs have received widespread criticism, CBS's Big Brother 3, which also relied heavily on sleaze, recently showcased a contestant who many believe displayed Christian behavior to millions of viewers who perhaps would never darken the doorway of a church.

Winzenberg describes Jason Guy, 25, who attends Knollwood Assembly of God in Mobile, Ala., as "one of the greatest Christian characters to ever hit primetime."

"The only way you are going to get Christian characters on primetime is through these reality shows," says Winzenberg. "There are great opportunities [on reality-based programs] because they are trying to pick people from different walks of life."

"Some people have said that Christians should stay far away from Hollywood, but I think it's just the opposite," says Guy, who was chosen from among 6,000 applicants and finished the show in third place after 78 days in the sequestered house where his every move was caught on camera. "Christians need to be in every aspect of the world, letting their light shine."

Guy says there were disagreeable things on the show that made him uncomfortable, and the cast and crew knew what those things were. Though his presence made for some awkward moments, he believes he had a positive effect on the other contestants. "They played the game with a little more love and concern for other people," he says, noting that he has never used drugs or alcohol and has remained a virgin. "Some people think there's no way you can enjoy life without those things, but you can. And I think I proved that.

"I was in this house, but I was not a part of those things," he says. "I connected with people and I loved them. Jesus would do the same thing. He wouldn't have been like them, but He would have been with them. And they would have loved Him and respected Him."

Aaron Fruh, senior pastor at Knollwood A/G, agrees. "Christians need to be in every industry," Fruh says. "I knew Jason was strong enough to go and keep his testimony and make a difference."

But Winzenberg says it is going to take more than just Christian characters to change the tide of sleaze on television and cable. He says creative people are going to have to step to the forefront of the entertainment industry.

"Anyone can throw in curse words, sexuality and violence and claim they are being creative," he says. "What's really difficult to do is create something that has a strong message and is entertaining, yet doesn't contain that stuff."

"Reprinted by permission of the Pentecostal Evangel."

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