Insight. Antics.

All Guts, No Glory.

In Television on December 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm

This is ostensibly a blog about media and politics, but it gets pulled in the political direction a bit more often. I think that’s because the daily developments of that world feel more consequential (even if that is illusory) and spark a more pointed and immediate reaction.

However, as a voracious follower of television, and occasionally gracious sharer of the remote control, I have plenty to say on the topic. So, when I read that NBC was bringing back Fear Factor, I cringed. And upon seeing an ad for it in which it appears men and women are bobbing for apples in a pool of blood, I also reacquainted with my gag reflex. Indeed, LA Times, indeed: “Horse rectum for everyone!”

We know you’re struggling, NBC, but this smacks of desperation. What happened to the NBC execs of a few years ago who were lamenting their network being reduced to showing frat guys eating bugs in primetime in the mid-aughts? I don’t know if it’s a result of their new Comcast overlords, but this is a step backwards over a lesson it seemed was already learned.

When a viewer files a lawsuit (eventually dismissed) saying your show made him vomit prolific piles of protein, what makes you sit down with your team and say, “I think we had something here. Let’s bring it back.”

Variety reports (subscription required) that Fear Factor re-opened well. In the ratings on Monday night it was seventh overall, with 8.5 million viewers, and fourth in the 18-49 demographic. (To put that another way, 8.5 million people watched five scorpions get eaten alive by some girl. Despair.)

I wasn’t on a press list to get an advance screener of this return premiere, and it’s probably just as well, because I don’t think I would have watched it. If I really wanted to purge, I would knock back a few extras at the Brief Wit holiday party instead of seeing some guy’s dad eat a baker’s dozen Killa bees live. Still, to speak with some credibility, I did fast-forward through the two back-to-back re-premiere episodes on my DVR in about eight minutes.

I just imagine Joe Rogan, the host, who I like from his days on News Radio, getting the call from the producer saying, “We’re back!” and then springing up from his couch, fist to the air, kind of like Elaine’s one-time beau on Seinfeld when he found out he was the Wiz again… because nobody beats him. (By the way, News Radio is an underrated ’90s sitcom, but how obsolete does a show about radio sound today?)

Fear Factor’s maker, Endemol, has adopted enhanced nauseation techniques this year. The scale of the stunts is larger, and more importantly, the eating of unnatural animals and wading in disgusting substances has been lowered to new levels of yuck. It seems like the emphasis of the show is always on that second of three challenges: the gross-out spectacle.

With this iteration of Fear Factor, it feels like we’re just a step short of the old capital punishment bit from George Carlin. “I’d have naked upside down crucifixions on TV once a week at halftime of the Monday night football game!” That might be easier to watch.

One falsehood of the show is that it isn’t really about fear. Rarely, if ever, does a contestant simply opt not to do something. And when they do, it’s out of repulsion to the sheep’s eye they’ve been told to eat. The contestant doesn’t have a fear of sheep’s eyes, she’s just disgusted by them.

The same is true of the stunts. Contestants are always helmeted, goggled, and carabiner-ed up. The staff is always close. You know you’re not getting hurt in this highly monitored environment.

In its debut 10 years ago, Fear Factor drew 12 million viewers, and exceeded expectations to become, what Bill Carter of the Times called, the hit of the summer of 2001. NBC felt strongly enough about it to try a disruptive Playmates version during halftime of the Super Bowl the next year, when the game was on Fox. Fear Factor ran through 2006, and even spawned a Universal Studios ride.

Of course, the Times’ original review in 2001 was not something you put on the marketing collateral at upfront time, unless your advertisers like chilling out in a pit full of rats.

Carter also mused then, “It has certainly pushed some boundaries of taste. Fear Factor followed up its challenge last week — when contestants had to eat from a bowl of sheep’s eyes while a herd of sheep wearing eye patches looked on — with a segment on Monday night that had contestants eating from a platter of buffalo testicles. (At least that was not accompanied by a chorus of buffalo singing ‘Home on the Range’ in soprano.)”

Personally, if I’m watching a reality TV competition, I’d rather opt for something with a hint of cultural enrichment, like The Amazing Race. I can’t imagine why that show has won the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program eight of the last nine years.

Or, if you’re into stunts, how about MythbustersMythbusters is a monumentally better reality program than Fear Factor, with tons more inventive, dangerous stunts that keep you watching. It wins you over with humor and innocuously learns you somethin’ about science along the way. And don’t expect the president on Fear Factor any time soon for that reason.

The show was lampooned in thinly veiled parodies on 30 Rock in 2008, when Fear Factor was off-air. Jeff Zucker, who presided over NBC during the show’s initial run, used to joke that his network was “the home of quality TV — and Fear Factor.”

But it’s not just bad taste, it’s bad business. Even if in a less tangible sense.

If you want to know why your network is hurting, it’s shows like this, diluting your brand, befouling a reputation for quality. You used to cultivate that, in order to attract top production outfits and affluent, educated viewers. Fewer people are opting for the Peacock logo on their channel guides now. These gross-out ratings may prop you up temporarily, but they are simultaneously holding back your broader aspirations.

The only redeeming part of Fear Factor‘s return is that the producers can create a stunt where contestants literally jump a live shark to jump the shark.

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