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The Embarassment Experiment

Why are people willing to humiliate themselves on TV? And why do we watch?

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And in a new twist that's floating around the Internet these days, treason is defined like this: John Ashcroft slips on a banana peel and anybody laughs. But I'm straying from my point for the sake of a cheap laugh. So sue me.

Let's update the definitions. ABC will debut "The Bachelorette" next month. If I were to be among the guy contestants on the show - leaving aside the fact that such a possibility is about as likely as peace breaking out in the Middle East - and I got booted, that would be a tragedy. But if it happens to you, millions of Americans will watch and laugh. Or so ABC hopes.

ABC probably isn't far off the mark. "The Bachelor" was one of only two ABC series to make it into the top 25 most watched shows this season. Women watched the series in droves. On the series' final night, women rose from their deathbeds to see whether Aaron Buerge, a banker from Missouri, would pick Helene or Brooke. Sure, the one Aaron picked probably felt pretty good about herself. For a while, anyway. The "relationship" between last year's "Bachelor" series couple faded out almost as soon as the applause did.

So why do people do this to themselves — put themselves on the line, let themselves be judged, let all their foibles and humiliations be beamed into millions of living rooms? And why do we watch?

If it happens to me, it's awful. If it happens to you, it's fascinating.

It's like driving past a deadly accident on the highway and slowing down. Let's look hard and thank God it isn't us.

And just as "Gunsmoke" spawned scores of horse-opera copycattle nearly 50 years ago, "The Bachelor" is casting its spore all over the TV grids.

The E! network is hitting the airwaves now with "Star Dates," which will match up ordinary people who want a few minutes in the spotlight with celebrities for whom the clock ran out long ago. The buzz has it that Gary Coleman ("Diff'rent Strokes"), Butch Patrick ("The Munsters") and Dustin Diamond ("Saved by the Bell") might participate. Can't you just imagine making small talk with one of them — or even watching it? I can't, but I'm not in the prime demographic, so what do I know?

And over on HBO, "Cathouse" aired a number of times in December. The documentary used spy cameras to tape what goes on between prostitutes and their johns at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada. Among the "stars" of "Cathouse" are a 22-year-old virgin (his mother brought him to the Ranch), two brothers whose funds are running low (they can only afford to watch one of the girls masturbate) and a kinky couple looking for a three-way ("Let's rock 'n' roll," says the husband). Amazingly, all of the participants signed consent forms, after they had been filmed.

Next spring or early summer, NBC plans to air "Race to the Altar," a series in which 16 soon-to-be-wed couples will battle it out for a primetime fantasy wedding. The network says the contest will focus on "key points of marriage," like sex, honesty, trust and coping under pressure. Forget what damage that might do to the contesting couples. As Tom Lehrer put it in his satirical song, "Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun."

If they land on me, it's tragic. If they land on you, it's a hoot.

Which brings us again to the question of why people agree to participate in rites of public mortification for the titillation of the masses. And why do we watch?

Participants do it for the fame, I suspect, to validate their grim existence by appearing on television, whatever the personal cost to their dignity. As to why we watch, consider this:

Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment 40 years ago to test the limits of obedience. He talked people into delivering electric shocks to a "student" in what they were told was a test of the effect of pain on learning. The "student" was in on the game and was never actually shocked. But the people with the switches in their hands usually kept upping the voltage as long as they were told to by an authority figure. Milgram posited that it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is far enough from the final consequences.

It's tragic when it happens to me. But if it happens to you, well, maybe that's not so bad.

I wonder if any of the TV execs have heard about the Milgram experiment. It might make a helluva popular TV series. S



"Star Dates" airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on E! The Bachelorette is expected to premiere on ABC in this month.



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