By John C Beyer
As BBC Two's latest IF... programme broadcasts a frightening vision of what television of the future might be like, John Beyer argues that ratings chasing and a demeaned broadcasting culture are presenting a very real risk of a reality TV disaster.
The prospect of a contestant in an aggressive reality television show committing suicide may seem very far-fetched and, even in the present climate, extremely unlikely.
John Beyer: broadcasters should exercise "reality caution"
But the scenario presented in The Cage, where the winner is the last person standing, is not an unreasonable speculation considering how this "reality" genre has evolved in the last five years.
In recent years we have seen shows like Big Brother, which have brought together groups of people selected precisely because they were strong, discordant characters with abrasive natures.
Clearly conflict was expected so as to revive the flagging ratings for the series.
The fact that the live transmissions were suspended and police had to intervene to stop the fighting could, perhaps, have been foreseen by the programme makers.
But it all added to the publicity of this, and other housemate activities, and it was no surprise that Big Brother telephone voting made thousands of pounds for Channel 4 as well as improve its revenue from advertisers who saw it as a good opportunity to maximise exposure for their products and services.
In a very competitive television market place this sort of profile-raising has become routine.
The power of television to attract public attention is well known
Additionally, cooperation between newspapers and television companies to keep public interest high is calculated to keep ratings high and newspapers sales buoyant.
The power of television to attract public attention is well known.
As long ago as the 1960s, Harold Wilson asked the BBC to postpone an episode of the popular sitcom Steptoe and Son so that the public would not stay in and watch it but go out and vote in a General Election.
More recently a government press officer remarked that the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York was a good opportunity to get out some bad news without it being noticed.
The temptation for difficult or controversial political news to be released when public attention is focused elsewhere is always present.
Look through the popular newspapers any day of the week and see how much attention is given to relatively trivial matters.
Of course newspapers have to sell, but the truth is that important news affecting everyone can easily be ignored, overlooked or minimised when acres of newsprint are devoted to matters that affect one or two "celebrities" who do something scandalous or foolish.
The convergence of technologies means that everybody now has access to a very great deal of low-budget poor-quality television programming, not only on their televisions but also on their computers.
Exploiting human weakness
In the realm of the violent computer game the moral imperative is precisely the same as The Cage.
The more brutal and imaginative the virtual violence the more points are scored.
Accordingly, our expectations as viewers have changed and been driven down-market.
No longer are high technical and behavioural standards guarantees for high ratings and large audience share.
"Reality" shows have proved that there is an appetite for junk television with no script, no camera technique, no storyline and no big names.
In these circumstances the danger is that our broadcasting culture is demeaned.
Those capable of providing excellence in every respect are being cast aside in favour of programmes that exploit human weakness, not only in the contestants but also the viewers too, who are being actively encouraged to have an unhealthy desire to be voyeurs of dysfunctional publicists and exhibitionists.
Suicidal tendencies are a human dysfunction and, as the Mash signature tune tells us, "suicide is easy" and broadcasters should exercise "reality caution" before it is too late.
John C Beyer was a contributor to BBC Two's If... TV Goes Down The Tube, broadcast on Monday, 21 March, 2005, at 2320 GMT on BBC Two.