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Society of the spectacle

Thanks to Marilyn Manson and video games, television no longer has to take all the heat from those who think sex and violence are born out of the entertainment industry, rather than out of people. As it is, television is much too busy being inundated with amateur video footage to be bothered.

Most reality shows such as "Cops" (which uses mainly professional footage and some video from small cameras mounted on police cars) and "America’s Dumbest Criminals" (mostly security cameras) are formatted to look like the news. And they look pretty silly for it. But watching a segment called "True Confessions" on UPN 50’s "Ten O’Clock News" made me wonder who’s jumping on whose bandwagon.

On May 5, the news aired a confession by a young woman who said she drowned her 3-year-old son in a bathtub in 1997. The real footage was shown in two parts, one at the beginning of the broadcast (the buildup) and one near the end (her emotional confession), with plenty of reminders to stay tuned in between.

The video of the woman being questioned by two police investigators, recorded from a camera mounted high on the wall in a dank interrogation room, was fuzzy and low quality. But that only added to its authentic appeal. Otherwise, the interrogation would have looked just like a scene from "NYPD Blue." The woman was crying and confused, holding her head in her hands and fidgeting nervously, while the investigators were skillfully vacillating between convicting her right there and offering a condescending sort of consolation.

"He couldn’t have drowned on his own," one investigator insisted.

"My little boy is gone," the woman said. "And I most certainly did not do anything to make that happen."

"Something held him underneath the water."

No doubt, the news value of this taped confession was far outweighed by its hand-that-rocks-the-cradle sensationalism. And a teaser like (I paraphrase), "See a mother confess to drowning her 3-year-old son in the bathtub. The dramatic conclusion at 10:17 … " has all the up-to-the-minute urgency of a boxing match and the human consciousness of the WWF. Is it just the necessary evil of the ratings game at work here or instead an increasingly eerie blurring of TV’s dual roles (reliable information and titillation)?

From the bathroom stall loops seen on the soon-to-be-canceled TV tabloid, "Hard Copy," to the backyard mayhem of "America’s Funniest Home Videos," our interest in the real stuff grows, as well as our ability to get it. And let’s face it, the guy who falls off a horse or loses his pants at a wedding reception can be as entertaining as "Ally McBeal" any day. Does this mean that, if we really dig deep enough and take our indiscriminate exhibitionism seriously enough, real life can be better than fiction? Or has real life on TV turned into fiction? (There’s currently a buzz about whether or not reality shows are staged. Duh?)

Once the domain of UFO- and tornado-chasers, amateur video is a new staple for anything on TV. Just catch somebody doing something illegal, stupid, dangerous or embarrassing, and you have the country’s attention. Maybe this really is a land of Mickey Mouse voyeurs.

At 10:17 p.m., the second and final part of the young woman’s confession began. The investigators told her that the coroner’s report said her son had been held under the water until he was unconscious before he drowned. In a final plea for the truth, one of the investigators asked the woman to look into her own soul and explain why her son was not here anymore.

That did her in, and she broke down sobbing and swearing she had tried to help him, and she held him under the water because he kept splashing her. But before she confessed to this, she said, "I’m terrified that I’m going to end up on the news like some horrible person." As a viewer, I felt as if I was helping this woman’s worst nightmare come true.

The following night, "True Confessions" featured the man who went on a shooting rampage at the Wixom Ford plant after his stalking failed to win the affection of a woman who worked there. He blamed the plant’s management.

Watching the Wixom killer’s interrogation wasn’t half as engrossing as the woman who drowned her son, since the man just confessed to everything without a tear or a fight. He even bragged about the fact that he could have just blown them all up if he wanted to and, with a Charles-Manson-meets-the-Marlboro-Man air, he described his face-off with one of the officers who had taken a few shots at him just before he was captured.

After that, I decided that "True Confessions" wasn’t something I was going to make an effort to watch in the future, especially if I was looking for local news. And it wasn’t like I was making a judgment about what the news should be as much as I got this feeling that I was being entertained instead of informed. And if I wanted the former, I would have watched a "real show." Of course, by that I mean a sitcom.

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