If you've seen one episode of Fox's American Idol, Bobby Goldstein's Cheaters, Dateline's "To Catch a Predator,” or any of the other reality TV programs, you’ve seen them all. The difference between all of them and one of them is that on "To Catch a Predator," the bad guy goes to jail.
Every reality TV show is a set-up, but how it goes from there seems to be what differentiates “To Catch a Predator” from other reality TV. Elsewhere in reality programming land, consequences are choreographed and edited, making the whole idea of reality TV a misnomer. “To Catch a Predator” is real. Everything else is surreal.
While failed (and unnecessarily ridiculed and humiliated) American Idol contenders don't reach the golden ring, Simon Cowell gets to showcase his glaring lack of diplomacy week after week without being shot. His cohorts in crimes of indecency sit idol-y by and often lean away from his crass assessments, presumably because they don’t want to be hit by the shrapnel of an inevitable hit. Security may be tight to keep Cowellettes and Abduligans in check, but it’s more likely that Simon’s potshots are what have the guards on high alert. They know he’s going to get it one of these days.
Idol viewers are no less culpable – they’re just not seen or heard by the contestants. If, as many a loyal Idol-ite has told me, the reason for watching is to catch the stars before they’re stars, then the auditions would hold no allure. The Idol competition (an adulterated version of Star Search, whose creators either had too much respect for their fellow man to air the auditions or were edged out by those who were willing to lower the bar) would be all that’s needed if that were true. Idol viewers remind me of those who say they watch car races to see cars go around in circles until someone wins.
Those who sought out the help of Cheaters to prove their loved one is cheating feel the blow of their suspicions and may or may not be able to get on with their lives without the seemingly compassionate Joey Greco leading them through every move. (Could the guy’s motivation for provoking anger and tears be any more transparent?)
The guy/gal who cheated gets a few minutes of exposure to others who are looking for someone just like that. What should be win/lose is lose/win, but every now and then it’s lose/lose, like when a cheater gets left and/or pummeled by both lovers. The show remains popular because instant gratification seekers get what they want and those who can delay gratification eventually get what they want.
It’s all real in the academic sense of the word, but the consequences of each and every person’s actions are not. In the real world, Simon Cowell and Joey Greco would be pushing up daisies. Too, if these programs were less staged for entertainment value, we all might just get a little something out of it. As it is, we roll off our couches with less compassion and less interest in people as human beings.
One show changed, or rather challenged, some of that.
Some might argue that “To Catch a Predator” is not reality TV. It certainly can’t be argued with any logic or stamina that it is some sort of journalism or a public service. I love “To Catch a Predator” and so do most people who have been on the receiving end of what happens when balls of shit walking around in human form are not stopped. To call it journalism or a public service, though – that’s a stretch. It’s also been said the program brings unwanted attention to the families of the arrested, attention they would otherwise not have known.
The consequences for the families of the suspects are tragic, but not because Dateline airs the show. The consequences are tragic for the families because their loved one was found to be a ball of shit walking around in human form. He who would argue that this discovery would be more palatable on a local rather than national scale need only talk to the family members of those who were discovered, but never recorded.
When the ratings go down, and they will, “To Catch a Predator” will not continue to air. NBC isn’t PBS. This deflates any notion of public service. It’s certainly not reporting the news. News is “Eleven suspected pedophiles were arrested.” Dateline, like all reality programming, appeals to our inner voyeur. Thus, out the journalistic window goes the journalistic defense.
What “To Catch a Predator” does is educate a society that had insisted on ignorance. For centuries, the masses have convinced themselves that pedophiles are not only few and far between, but that they look like trolls. This notion was used against many a victim (“He couldn’t have done that, dear – he’s an upstanding citizen in the community, not a troll”).
In many cases, “To Catch a Predator” makes life safer for those children who would’ve been victimized had the aforementioned balls of shit not been stopped. It’s also hefty vindication for some of those who have already suffered at the hands of pedophiles. Personally, I can’t get enough of seeing these men taken down and away.
Those who would question the legality or ethics of Dateline’s procedures need only remember one thing and ask themselves one question: The men they catch will never suffer as much as those they’ve victimized or intended to victimize, so what’s with all the pity? You can stomach Simon Cowell’s use of shame, watch as emotions are provoked, and join the camera as it bears down on the disloyal and goes into private homes in search of criminals, but you can’t hack a parade o’ pedophilia? The irony of “To Catch a Predator” being too much reality for even the most reality-addicted – now that’s stomach churning.
Dateline is doing a great thing. I don’t care if they make money while they do it. I don’t care if they stop airing it tomorrow. The secret is out and there’s no going back. I only care that someone bothered to go public with what was, for some reason, private information: Pedophiles are active, they are everywhere, they look like ministers and doctors, and these are their names.
There’s a reality you can use.