Connie Chung's interview of Congressman Gary Condit will be presented tonight as an ABC News program. But don't let the label fool you: This is merely the latest entry in the blazing-hot genre of reality programming - somewhere between rats crawling over contestants on NBC's Fear Factor and Julie Chen interviewing the guy who put a knife to a woman's throat on CBS' Big Brother.
Each of the Big Three networks can be equally proud of how they elevate the culture through video spectacles of voyeurism, narcissism, exhibitionism and titillation.
"Add the contestants' exhibitionism to the viewers' voyeurism and you get a picture of society sickly in thrall to what Saul Bellow called `event glamour,' " Salman Rushdie wrote of reality television in The Guardian this summer.
Chung's interview on PrimeTime Live (10 p.m.-11 p.m., WMAR, Channel 2) has become an event, at least in terms of pre-air publicity, no doubt about it.
Maybe it's the time of the year - one of the most slack periods of prime-time programming. But there also seem to be larger cultural factors at work - patterns of behavior between us and the machine that has become the principal storyteller in our lives.
You can place the Chung-Condit encounter in the context of politicians and religious leaders under heavy fire coming before a television interviewer and rolling the dice that they can dramatically improve their image by a strong half-hour of on-screen performance. The big moment in recent history on this continuum would be Bill and Hillary Clinton on CBS' 60 Minutes during the 1992 presidential campaign addressing reports that Clinton had a liaison with Gennifer Flowers.
There are other, lesser moments that had an event glamour to them, like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart coming to the late-night confessional of Ted Koppel's Nightline to see if an act of contrition could win public forgiveness. Confess to a smaller crime, layer it with some tears, and maybe they'll let you remain in office or keep the ministry.
The modern-day grandfather of such political performances is, of course, Richard Nixon's Checkers speech, in which he kept his place as vice presidential candidate on the 1952 Republican ticket by "confessing" that his family accepted a dog named Checkers as a gift. He made the speech to deny charges that he had a political slush fund grown fat with gifts from wealthy friends.
But I do not think the notion of television as a public confessional is a particularly valid one anymore. I think television has helped us become too jaded and cynical for the kind of catharsis we once found in the TV confessional. Most of us tonight will instead sit down to watch with the same expectations we bring to shows like Survivor and Weakest Link.
Some of us will be hoping to see Chung verbally debase Condit the way Anne Robinson punishes her guests for being stupid on Weakest Link. Some of us hope Chung can trick him into some kind sort of an admission of guilt. Remember the Richard Hatch she pulled on Newt Gingrich's mother?
And is there any exhibitionist in the Big Brother house more self-absorbed and preening than Condit? These two were made for each other in reality-programming heaven. The opinion polls will tell us who gets voted off the island.
The scariest thing about tonight's entertainment spectacle is that in all the event glamour and all the ABC publicity about what a big "get" Chung got, the thing that's so easy to forget is that we are not talking about a cash prize or even a political slush fund.
This is about whether Gary Condit has anything to do with the fact that a young woman has gone missing. That's entertainment in this summer of reality TV.