Turning Truth into Soap Opera

Television has become the new ambulance chaser. In Waco, the stand-off between police and the Branch Davidians cult had barely begun when more than two dozen television producers were bidding for rights to the story. In Nevada, a young couple and their baby were still in the hospital after surviving eight days in a blizzard when Hollywood descended on them. A bidding war for the story broke out among 75 producers, who sent flowers and faxes by the dozens. "It became a feeding frenzy," said the couple's agent. Criminals and their victims are especially hot items. The most notorious was the Amy Fisher story, about an 18-year-old girl who shot the wife of a man she claimed was her lover. All three networks made television movies based on the story. Together they garnered a higher rating than the Super Bowl. This is called "reality-based programming," and high Nielsen ratings mean that a lot of Americans are tuning in. Today no less than 75 percent of the "made-for-TV" movies are based on true stories. Television critics are starting to raise an alarm. Reality-based programming desensitizes viewers, they argue. It turns crimes and tragedies into commodities to be sold for a profit. It reduces real people to the level of soap opera characters, exploiting their pain and suffering for shock value. Reality-based programs have become little more than electronic gossip. Even more disturbing, viewers tend to regard these programs as educational, not merely entertaining. After all, they're based on things that really happened. One father told a reporter he approved of his kids watching "America's Most Wanted" because it teaches about real life. But just how real is it? Consider the Amy Fisher story. Or stories, I should say, since it appeared in three versions. If television were just presenting the facts in an objective manner, then all three stories ought to have been roughly the same. After all, facts are facts. But instead the three versions differed widely. One presented Amy as a misunderstood teenager, taken advantage of by a manipulating adult. Another presented Amy as an evil seductress, out to destroy an innocent family man. Each version gave a different point of view. When we watch a sit-com or a movie, at least we're aware the story is made up. But reality-based programming gives the illusion that what we're seeing is real-while in fact conveying a highly slanted perspective. It blurs the distinction between truth and falsehood, between fantasy and reality. This can create a dangerous climate for Christians. We ought to be people who care passionately about truth. Our purpose in life is summed up in calling people away from false gods to worship the true God. That mission becomes all the more difficult in a society where the boundary between falsehood and truth has grown fuzzy. So as Christians we need to monitor our television viewing diligently. In everything we do, we ought to be training ourselves and our children to love the truth. We need to see reality-based programs for what they really are: programs that masquerade as true-but are really little more than soap operas.


Chuck Colson


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