Summertime TV has been dabbling in game shows and contestant humiliation since 2001, when NBC debuted Fear Factor with an episode featuring players lowered into a pit filled with rats.
But this year, the networks have taken their game to a whole new level with programs that show competitors getting punched in the face and falling into a pit of mud as they try to climb an obstacle-course wall - or players dressed like bugs getting slammed against car windshields.
One entire series is built on the premise of contestants being forced to eat rich foods like clam chowder or cream pie until they are stuffed - and then put through physical paces intended to make them sick.
While some might say yuck, millions are eating them up.
ABC's Wipeout, a Tuesday-night series steeped in mud, is the highest-rated new program of the summer with about 10 million viewers a week. And almost half that audience is made up of adults 18 to 49 years old, the demographic most attractive to advertisers.
The bug-on-the-windshield series, ABC's I Survived a Japanese Game Show, is not far behind in popularity with 8 million viewers a week, and an even larger percentage of young fans in its audience.
While analysts and producers acknowledge the appeal of mean and the lure of get-rich-quick narratives in these uncertain economic times, they also see the shows speaking to other deeper cultural concerns as well.
"The appeal on one level involves ridicule and laughing at the other," says Sheri Parks, a University of Maryland, College Park professor of popular culture. "But I think some of the shows are also about survival in almost an apocalyptic sense. They ask the question: Are you tough enough to survive in these [post-9/11] times."
Whatever the reason, their appeal is widespread enough that cable channels are getting in on the nasty game-show act, as well. Last week, Comedy Central premiered two new entrees, including a parody of the burgeoning genre that seeks to have it both ways by mocking the formula and exploiting it with its own hapless contestants.
The Gong Show With Dave Attell revisits the mean-spirited 1970s show hosted by Chuck Barris that mocked wannabe performers for their lack of talent - and became the template for the tryout episodes on Fox's American Idol.
Reality Bites Back follows the remake on Thursday nights with 10 comedians competing in parodies of such series as NBC's American Gladiators. They don't just crack wise about the hand-to-hand combat, though. They engage in it, as well.
And there are more such series on the way. One of the most intriguing, Cash or Capture, is scheduled to debut in November on the red-hot Sci Fi channel. Like Wipeout, it is based on a Japanese series - this one featuring a group of contestants competing for cash prizes while being stalked by a group of hunters.
Mark Stern, executive vice president of original programming at Sci Fi, thinks his series will connect with viewer interests on a variety of levels.
"Winning the cash windfall is obviously a big part of the wish fulfillment of any of these games shows or reality shows - especially during times when things are tougher for people economically," Stern says. "But I think the bigger appeal when times are tough is escapism. People really want to be taken out of their lives and transported to other places. They want to escape, to go someplace else and not be in their lives - and I think that is part of the appeal of the larger-than-life reality shows."
Cash or Capture is intended to look and feel like a video game, according to Stern, and that virtual realm is where he and the producers want to take their target audience of young viewers who grew up with and continue to play video games.
Shirley Peroutka, professor of popular culture at Goucher College, sees a definite connection between the TV game shows that feature contestant humiliation and video games in which characters are abused on screen.
"It is not in the least surprising that what teenagers are playing on their computers screens now becomes a successful new form of TV programming," she says. "The combat, the meanness, the one-upmanship, the laughing at others' misfortune of these shows are all there in the video games."
Analysts say the trend will continue - for global economic reasons if nothing else. Such shows are cheap to make, and they travel incredibly well.
As the University of Maryland's Parks puts it, "Ridicule translates across cultures."
Endemol, the company the produces Wipeout for ABC, has opened an office in Turkey where it is now producing a local version of the game show for that audience.
And countries like Japan and Britain offer what seems to be an endless supply of new programming for American TV.
"In exploring Japanese and British reality TV, what I found so interesting about those two societies is that they are so regimented and structured in their social orders, and yet their reality television is pretty out of control," says Sci Fi's Stern.