Back in 1988, Garry Trudeau, the creator of the comic strip "Doonesbury," envisioned the most implausible of events: One of his characters, a performance artist named J.J., would give birth live on cable.
It only took a little more than a dozen years for Trudeau's scenario - a joke at the time - to come true on network television.
Yesterday morning, five babies were delivered at hospitals in Boston, Houston and Dallas before the cameras of ABC News' "Good Morning America." It was said to be a first for network television.
And it draws the question: Why now?
Of course, the start of February ushers in a pivotal "sweeps" month for the network. But there's more afoot. As CBS' "Survivor II" and Fox's "Temptation Island" are all the rage, other broadcasters are desperately seeking to make their own mark with so-called "reality-based" programming. It matters little that most such shows are highly scripted.
In fact, the most promising NBC show that plays off the "reality" feel is the "XFL" - the extreme football league - which made its debut last Saturday night. An impressive 87,000 households in the Baltimore area tuned in for a program that offers mediocre football, but edgy, on-field camera angles plus stray shots of cheerleaders who are built like Mount Rushmore. Put that way, it sounds a bit like the premise for the movie "The Replacements."
ABC has largely taken a different tack to "reality programs," exemplified by "Hopkins 24/7," the six-hour documentary on the Baltimore medical center produced by the network's news division. Periodically, Shelley Ross, the executive producer of "Good Morning America," meets with her senior staff and asks, "What have you been jealous of lately?" Without fail, last year, the response was the Hopkins show.
In an interview, Ross says that recent shows featuring widespread American anger over unemployment and stressful overtime shifts should have to share space with more positive stories. With yesterday's two-hour show, dubbed "Super Baby Tuesday," Ross said, "We could have a celebration of life that still looks at new technology, still looks at trends in maternity care. And I thought we were fairly tasteful."
It's ground covered unsentimentally by The Learning Channel. But this was done in a much more affirming way, maybe to a fault. At one point, the avuncular Charles Gibson, who is impossible to dislike, appeared to be wiping away tears. Medical correspondent Nancy Snyderman, a doctor clad in scrubs and pearls, gaily darted from one delivery room to the next, sometimes leaving Gibson and co-host Diane Sawyer confused as camera shots shifted rapidly to keep up with each new report of dilations. "I feel like I'm in a golf tournament here," Gibson joked.
Obstetricians matter-of-factly explained what they were doing, as the babies-to-be started poking out - off camera, of course. Snyderman's bedside interview style - "Well, Dad, you seem to be holding up well," she told one new father before thrusting a microphone at him - closely resembled that of a sideline reporter during a football game.
Sawyer explained to viewers, as though it needed stating, "It is the most profound moment of your life, whether you're the father or the mother." While couples had given their consent to be captured on television, that didn't mean they were ready to articulate their very real feelings - be it joy, relief or ambivalence. As a new mother responded to Snyderman's questions: "Right now, I'm in a fog. I can't really think."
Given all the cooing on the set, Sawyer rightly felt compelled to point out that the beatific mother who had apparently experienced the shortest delivery in modern history actually had begun labor 18 hours earlier. Ross' team had hoped for one or two births during the actual program. Gibson and Sawyer were happily surprised by five. Had there been complications on air, producers would have had to make some hard, snap choices about protecting the privacy of parents and babies. At the least, "GMA" would have had a much less emotionally upbeat show - a danger of going live.
Whether one wants to watch such invasive footage, even done with restraint, is an open question. But as the morning progressed, ABC was able to weave in informative reports on natal care.
The network looks utterly prim compared to MTV's aptly named "Jackass," a show featuring daredevil stunts done by a self-professed idiot. This, too, is in a sense "reality programming," enough so that one copycat teen suffered serious burns mimicking what he saw on the tube.
In another "Doonesbury" cartoon from more than a decade ago, two Roman centurions are chatting as they watch lions devour Christians at the Coliseum. "It panders to such base, mob instincts," says one.
"Don't be so condescending, Flauvius," responds the other. "This is what the Roman public wants! Have a pity, man! The empire is crumbling around us! If watching a few martyrs get torn apart helps people get their minds of their problems, then I'm proud to be a part of it!"
"By Jupiter, you're right," the first centurion says. "By offering a public distraction, you're softening the rough edges of life! You're a good man, Geraldo Riveribus."
Geraldo, who's been busy cleaning up his image with a public affairs talk show, may take a pass. But I'm looking for the new reality program "Christians v. Lions" to turn up on the WB any day now.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? You can reach David Folkenflik by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 410-332-6923.