Hot in France: Reality TV That Kills

Posing as a reality TV show, a French documentary recreates the Milgram experiments of the 1960s

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Zone Xtrême is reality TV taken one step further: the contestants, when they get answers wrong, are zapped with an electric shock. The shocks get more and more powerful as the contestants scream with pain until, on occasion, they appear to have died. But there's a twist: in fact, Zone Xtrême is a set-up, and it's the people administering the shocks that are being tested--the "contestants" are actors, the audience is fake, and the entire series isn't reality TV but a documentary. It is, in essence, a repeat of the famous 1960s experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who, in the wake of horrifying revelations about Nazi Germany, was studying people's obedience to authority.

The Milgram experiments were and remain controversial. Ethical guidelines introduced after the experiment have made it impossible to reproduce Milgram's procedure, and U.S. institutional review boards would almost certainly forbid a repeat of the experiment today. Yet bizarrely, this is not what's got French commentators worked up. Rather, they see in this documentary (called Le Jeu de la Mort, or "the game of death") a terrible revelation about the effect of reality TV on society. (As in Milgram's experiment, many participants ignored the "victim's" screams and continued to obey.) Has reality TV, ask the French commentators, come to the point where it can convince people to kill?

  • 'How Did We Come to This?' asks Marion Festraëts in L'Express. She points to other reality TV shows that involve the dissection of cadavers. "Why have these shows garnered such success, despite the repulsion or disgust some of them elicit? What influence do these images exert on our society and our spirits?" In response, she quotes philosopher Bernard Stiegler:
Man is not an impulsive being ... Our education teaches us not to eat a neighbor's food when we are hungry, not to attack a woman we covet. On the contrary, we divert our impulses to transform them into longing and social investment. But this television augments our impulsive tendencies, ... offering programs ever more mimetic and regressive.
  • What We Watch Matters, agrees Le Monde's Frank Nouchi--and this isn't just a problem with reality shows. He points to a study of how shows about "violence, egotism, individualism and competition have a negative effect on the people who watch them." In fact, he says, supposed news networks "shouldn't think themselves safe from criticism," either. He's not pleased with the routine appearance of "'sulfurous' guests" they bring on to "maintain their audience," citing a few deliberately controversial folks commenting on September 11.
  • Awful, but is Reality TV Really the Problem?  "Christophe Nick's documentary," admits Libération's Fabrice Rousselot, "sends a chill down the spine and again shows us a pitable image of ourselves and of this televised reality that has long polluted our screens." But he, at least, seems more familiar with the Milgram experiments that inspired it. Can "trash TV" and its "favorite ingredients" of "humiliation and violence ... create potential assassins?" He reminds readers of what "Milgram said himself: in his famous test, the subjects' obedience was not linked to the environment (here, reality TV), but to our normal relationship with authority. That's even more terrifying."
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