Drawing a line in the sand for trash TV

May 17, 1999|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

JUST WHEN you think it can't get any worse, it does.

If you doubt that, you obviously haven't heard about "Cheaters." I hadn't heard about it myself until a reader faxed a news story to me. It seems that "Cheaters" is a new syndicated series where unfaithful partners are caught and confronted on camera.

According to the article, it works like this. You suspect your partner is having an affair. You contact "Cheaters," which sends a private investigator out to confirm your fears. As the unfaithful lover is unknowingly filmed breaking vows and commandments right and left, "Cheaters" drops you into the scene like a hand grenade in a room full of crystal. A camera crew records the ensuing explosion of tears, fistfights and humiliation.

A spokesman tells me the show might premiere domestically as early as the fall, possibly on TBS or UPN, though nothing is firm yet. Presumably, it will find a large audience among those for whom talk-show host Jerry Springer is a tad too cerebral.

As it happens, I learned about "Cheaters" in the same week that a civil jury in Michigan ordered "The Jenny Jones Show" to pay $25 million to the family of Scott Amedure. He was, you will recall, the gay man who went on Ms. Jones' talk show in 1995 to confess a crush on Jonathan Schmitz, an emotionally troubled young alcoholic. Schmitz was stunned and humiliated by the revelation -- so much so that three days after the taping, he went to Amedure's home and shot him dead.

Ms. Jones' defenders have argued that the verdict will have a "chilling" effect on the use of surprise as an element in talk shows and news broadcasts. For my money, though, the message jurors sent has little to do with news gathering or even talk shows, as such. No, the message was simply this:


It's past time somebody said it.

Indeed, somebody should have said it before we became inured to the sight of 11-year-old prostitutes and Ku Klux Klan mothers spewing venom for the camera while talk-show hosts knit their brows in a pretense of concern.

The hook

Before jilted lovers began squaring off on television the way they do in the land of the barely verbal while a crowd chants blood lust. Before private pain and personal dysfunction came to be the hook television used to sell sanitary napkins and cereal bars.

Freedom of speech is not the issue. Accountability is. And that is, I'll grant you, a strange concept to introduce to the world of ambush television. But sometimes it seems as if we treat the televised lives of others as somehow less real than our own.

Someone is surprised by a meeting with the father who abandoned the family long ago . . . some wife learns that there's another woman in her husband's life . . . some husband discovers his son was fathered by another man . . . and we are there, up close and personal, going ooh and ah like it was just, well . . . television show. Like there weren't real human beings suffering at the center of it all.

Just entertainment

We watch somebody's life fall apart and when it's over, we change the channel or fix a sandwich.

So the message sent by the Jones jury seems a welcome reminder that these are real people and that their lives and troubles are more than just entertainment. Yet you have to wonder if the message will be received by television, its viewers or even the people whose lives it grinds up between commercials.

You wonder if Amedure's lesson will be learned. To read about "Cheaters" is to doubt it.

A man who asked the show to find out if his girlfriend was faithful told a reporter he cried when confronted with proof that she was not. The camera closed tight on his face, he said, "looking for entertainment value."

Meantime, the woman the girlfriend was caught cheating with thinks the exposure might be a "big break" for her. And the girlfriend herself? She says she was "humiliated" by the experience.

But, she adds, "I probably would watch . . . if it was happening to someone else."

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address: elpjay@aol.com.

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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