(Editor's Note: In the past few weeks, I've been fortunate enough to make two appearances on the wonderful NPR program All Things Considered. Here's the first of my two commentaries, as heard on January 21, 1998)

When Animals Attack Dick Clark and Bob Sagat

The genre of shockumentaries has begun to spread like crabgrass on an untended lawn. These are those television shows that depict horrific accidents, natural disasters, and animal attacks. Meanwhile the popularity of those "America's Funniest" programs that depict the lighter side of reality seems to be on the wane. These shows offer the wacky mishaps of folks who are supposedly just like you and me as they attempt everyday activities like mowing the lawn, grilling a steak, or walking the dog.

We're no longer interested, it seems, in the rib-tickling antics of our fellow citizens; now we prefer to see them swept away by tidal waves, mauled by bears, or caught in the deadly crossfire of a drug bust gone bad. I wonder why that is.

Could it be that things are going too well right now for us Americans? The economy continues to soar, the crime rate is dropping all over the country, we're not at war. So maybe we just need a dash of yin to accompany all that yang, a reminder that - although things are going swimmingly right now - when we least expect it, a tornado could dip down and carry us away, or a roving pack of feral Tasmanian Devils could appear to tear us limb from limb.

Or maybe I've got it backward. Maybe these shows offer a sort of reassurance against our fear of disaster. I mean, how many people encounter, in the course of any given year, a Bengal tiger escaped from a local zoo and in search of a snack. I'm guessing one, maybe two tops. So if you viewed a videotape of such an attack, you might feel relieved and say to yourself, "Great. That's one less thing I have to worry about."

Or maybe we simply require bloody spectacle in our lives. Much as we might like to think we're evolved, that we're more enlightened than our ancestors, are these reality-based programs really any more elevated or edifying than the bear-bating of Elizabethan England or the public hangings of 18th and 19th-century America? Probably not.

I worry that some people will make it their life's goal to somehow appear on one of these programs. I've long suspected that many of the zany "accidents" seen on shows with names like "America's Nuttiest Bloopers and Blunders" were in truth events staged in order to grab a minute or two of prime time television exposure for those "caught in the act." Achieving fame via a spectactularly staged pratfall is one thing, but risking life and limb by, say, intentionally falling into the crocodile pit at a reptile farm - for the sole purpose of capturing some death-defying footage - is quite another. Still, considering the pervasive fascination that an appearance on television seems to hold for many of us, I wouldn't bet against a few boneheads taking such a chance.

I prefer my reality-based programming to be a bit more practical. I've little interest in programs like "When Animals Get Peckish!" or "Mother Nature Miffed!" But I'd make it a point to watch one entitled, "Behind Closed Doors: What Women Really Discuss in the Ladies Lounge!" In the end, I prefer my reality programming to be educational, not merely alarming.

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