When I was working I never watched daytime TV. Even now I don’t watch much TV, usually just some news shows. Nevertheless recently I had occasion to watch some daytime television and I happened on the Maury Povich Show. Disobeying my better instincts to change the channel, I spent some time watching it, and the similar show that followed, the Steve Wilkos Show. I found both shows disturbing but oddly fascinating, probably the same mixture of emotions that kept the Roman peasants coming back to the Circus Maximus to watch people being torn apart by lions. Here on TV I was watching peoples’ lives being torn apart in a horrifying if less bloody fashion. Though I was disgusted with myself for watching, it was hard to turn it off.
If you are not familiar with the concept of these shows, it is rather simple. There is a woman, her child, and a boyfriend or spouse. The paternity of the child is in question. Rather than attempt to answer this question in private with DNA testing, the involved parties come on TV where they tell their stories and usually end up yelling at each other, accompanied by whoops, cheers and jeers from the studio audience. The moderator, Maury or Steve (Jerry Springer I believe was the first to have this kind of show) asks questions and makes some token attempt to keep the “contestants” in line, though a few thrown chairs and bleeped-out cuss words are par for the course and add to the drama. Finally the truth is revealed, both by the results of lie detector tests that the warring parties have taken before the show, and ultimately by the DNA test. At that point the man who thinks he is the father of the child finds out either he really is, or that his wife cheated on him and the kid isn’t his. There are variants on this theme, such as the freeloader who doesn’t want to support a child but finds out it is his kid after all, or the black couple with the light-skinned baby who everyone knows can’t be from the husband but the husband refuses to believe it until the DNA results come in. After the denouement there is a lot of crying or screaming or both. And then on to the next story.
Is this exploitative? Is the Pope Catholic? I did not watch long enough to prove this, but from what I watched and what I have read these shows have on poorly educated, low-income, often black couples who behave in a way that reinforces all the negative stereotypes we have of poor uneducated people. I don’t know why they come on the show. Sure they get a free DNA test, but at the cost of exposing the most private secrets of their lives to the world. The fact that they are willing to do this makes their participation even sader and more pathetic. But worse by far are the people who created the show and decided to exploit them in this way.
Back in the 1950s when I was growing up there was a show called Queen for A Day. Women would come on the show and tell stories about how they had lost all their money or had a handicapped child and couldn’t afford medical treatment. Using an applause meter, the audience would vote on which story was most pathetic. The winner was dressed in a royal robe and received her prize, often something like a washer-dryer. An awful concept for a show, but no worse than what’s on daytime TV now.
After Maury’s show was over, the nearly identical Steve Wilkos Show came on. A couple was introduced. Two young black people, who had a son 5 years old. I’m not sure if they were married, but I think they were and it’s easier to write their story as if they were. In any case they had been together for over 5 years and the man considered the son his. But he wasn’t sure. The wife, at about the time the child was conceived, had gone to a party where she claimed she was drugged and raped. She said she awoke in the hospital the next day not remembering anything and was told she had cocaine and Ecstacy in her blood. She did not press charges. The husband was concerned that the child was not really his. He said he loved his son but really wanted to know if he was his and whether his wife was telling the truth. As usual on the show, the two spent some time hurling accusations back and forth to the delight of the studio audience, and it looked like there wasn’t going to be much holding this relationship together if the DNA test didn’t come back the right way.
After a dramatic build-up (and several commercials), the results of the testing were delivered in a sealed envelope. The lie detector results were first. The woman had been telling the truth when she said she had awakened in the hospital with positive drug tests the morning after the party. But she had lied about being involuntarily drugged and raped. She had taken the drugs voluntarily and had “hooked up” with a guy at the party voluntarily. As the woman started breaking down on being confronted with these facts, the host, Steve Wilkos, read the results of the DNA testing. The man who had been with this woman for over 5 years and had served as a father to her son, was indeed NOT (emphasis per the show) the biological father of the child.
This sent the wife running in tears backstage. But the husband, who had every reason to be disappointed and angry, did the unexpected thing. He ran after his spouse, followed by the cameras. He hugged his wife and comforted her, repeating “we’ll work it out. We’ll work it out.” And all the time the camera focussed in on this most private, human, touching moment.
I turned off the TV, feeling guilty at witnessing such a private moment, but at the same time uplifted by the capacity of humans to forgive, to love. I guess this is the essence and attraction of reality television. While exposing a lot of the bad side of humanity, it occasionally surprises us by showing us the good lying at the core of some people. But it’s strong stuff, even gut-wrenching, and fundamentally voyeuristic. Not my cup of tea.