Last week, in the Fox special "Man vs. Beast," there was a stunt pitting the pulling power of an elephant against 44 midgets. Sure enough, even before the special aired, complaints came in from animal-rights organizations and a group representing little people. Despite the protests or, more likely, because of them, the show aired.
As each new reality series tries to top what has come before, shows have become provocative to the point that networks seem to view them as a kind of programming pinata -- inviting critics to take a swing.
For as much as journalists deride the excesses and manipulation of so-called reality television, they can't stop talking about it.
That much was clear during the critics' just-concluded visit to Los Angeles, where programs like "Joe Millionaire" and "The Bachelorette" dominated much of the hallway chatter and official discussions during the two-week event, demonstrating the interdependence between increasingly desperate network programmers and the journalists who cover their shows.
"It's all about making noise," said Sandy Grushow, Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman, Saturday at his network's press event. "There's nothing scarier than a show coming to television that nobody's talking about."
Steve Battaglio, a reporter for the New York Daily News, called fascination with the genre "the best thing that's happened to this beat in 10 years," energizing the discourse surrounding television as well as interest among newspaper editors.
A demonstration of that came at ABC's executive press conference last week, where network officials spent virtually all their allotted time fending off questions about such shows as "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People" and "Extreme Makeover," with little discussion of the network's scripted series.
"They're the water-cooler shows right now," said Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment -- a day-after office pastime almost given up for dead as television viewing has become ever more fragmented.
The Hollywood Radio and Television Society hosted a widely covered panel examining the genre Thursday, a few hours before CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline" weighed in under the blaring headline, "Culture in Decline."
While unscripted programs have in many instances attracted stellar ratings -- such as Fox's "Joe Millionaire," which duped women into thinking the construction worker/model they were vying to romance was worth $50 million -- the level of chatter engendered is clearly viewed as a bonus by harried promotion departments.
So, even negative reviews and hand-wringing about despoiling the culture provide a certain benefit, with Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center, likening the genre to blockbuster films that cater to teenage boys.
"It's review-proof," he said, adding that for the networks "it is important people know about a show, and the attacks in free media only supplement the paid promotional budget."
Because the shows generally run for a limited time, they also keep introducing new faces and formats to whet the appetites of reporters and potential viewers. In addition, the premises are usually simple, with Andrea Wong, the ABC executive who oversees alternative programs (the catchall category that includes these staged reality programs), saying last week that, when buying such shows, she looks for something "that we can sell to the public in 10 seconds or less."
Combine that simplicity with the emphasis on good-looking contestants, a titillation factor and a disproportionate appeal to younger audiences, and the programs seem tailor-made to news outlets -- from such TV shows as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" to general-interest newspapers hoping to spur interest among younger readers.
"These shows always have a sort of freakish quality to them," Mike Fleiss, producer of "The Bachelor," conceded at last week's "reality TV" panel.
Despite the assumption that bad publicity only helps staged reality shows, last week's panel did yield some debate about perceived limits. While "American Idol's" acerbic judge Simon Cowell advocated letting the public ultimately determine what's permissible, Paul Smith -- who produced the original "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in the U.K. -- expressed concern that the programs have already pushed dangerously close to the edge.
Contestants are "seduced by television," Smith said, adding that, when they apply for a show, "it's very easy, at that moment, to take advantage of them."
At the same event, USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco -- who has leveled harsh criticism at programs such as "Fear Factor" and CBS' "Big Brother" -- suggested that the genre risks sliding into self-parody thanks to a spate of recent programs featuring has-been celebrities in fabricated situations, such as ABC's "Celebrity Mole Hawaii" and the WB's "The Surreal Life."
Still, there is little reason to anticipate the media's preoccupation with these programs fading soon.
"Right now," he said, "reality is a good story."