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Even Worse in England

If parents find the new "reality TV" lows of American television too intense for their young children, they might be oddly comforted knowing that popular culture in other countries is sinking even lower.

England's Channel 4 is reaching for eyeballs the newfangled way - pure, socially unredeeming shock value. On November 20, the British people were blessed with a treat. They could turn on the telly to watch an autopsy. "Maverick doctor" Gunther von Hagens performed the honors on the corpse of a 72-year-old German man who, viewers were told, loved a lot of whiskey and cigarettes. Programming officials no doubt thought the public would like a curious peek at those innards. After all, the autopsy was performed in front of a studio audience of 200 paying spectators. Yes, paying spectators.

Then there's Channel 4's upcoming "People's Book of Records" show. To get a sense of this series, consider one of the quests for "achievement" in the pilot episode: People were challenged to see how many sausages they could bang on a table in the time it took a man in the same room to have his genitals pierced. Who is sicker, the person who thought up this stuff, or the one for whom it was created?

British papers are presently chortling over the producers' request asking for dog owners to come down to the TV studio to answer this deep inquiry: "Smearing a foodstuff of your own choosing, how many times can you get your dog to lick your bum cheeks in a minute?" One shutters at the thought of hundreds of limelight-lusting dog owners without a shred of dignity dispersed throughout the British Empire, spending the days with the family dog in rigorous practice. In case you thought this was vile, the producers protest: "It won't be bare-bottomed. People will be wearing trousers with circular holes cut out." The show's executive producer, Phil Gilheany, pulled out the reality TV impresario's book of clichés to dismiss these gags as a bit of "quite innocent fun."

But wait, it gets worse. Much worse.

The other boiling controversy at Channel 4 is the show "Beijing Swings," which rang in the new year by broadcasting still photographs of a Chinese "performance artist" biting into the charred flesh of a stillborn baby. When asked to explain why it would show photos too graphic for newspapers-not to mention benefiting at the expense of baby corpses stolen from a medical school-the network explained it was providing a look at "artistic freedom of expression and showing the growth of the underground art movement in China." Translation: Because we felt like it.

Channel 4 officials also refused to confirm if the "artist," Zhu Yu, actually ingested the human remains: "It's for people to decide in their own minds whether they think he did it." Zhu can also be watched as he has a piece of his own body grafted onto a pig. Apparently this sideshow isn't offensive enough, Zhu also declares his work is inspired by his own supposedly devout Christianity: "Jesus is always related to death, blood, wounds, et cetera." London Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak, the program's host, called the feat "suffering for your art on a messianic scale."

As for the Christian view on his baby-eating, Zhu claimed "No religion forbids cannibalism. Nor can I find any law that prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it." Such is how one views "art" in our enlightened times. One Tory member of Parliament offered a fine rebuttal: "Jesus Christ said 'Suffer the little ones to come unto me,' not that they should be eaten for public entertainment."

Despite a public outcry before the January 2 broadcast and demands that advertisers withdraw, Britain's Broadcasting Standards Commission says it could not address the propriety of a program before it aired and drew public complaint. The only things watering down this nightmare (as if they matter) were the show's 11 PM air time and the promise of a disclaimer warning of the images to come. Perhaps the announcer could have said: "This program contains shocking images of human cannibalism that someone thought would make this network profitable."

Why should we care? Isn't this typical European decadence? The answer is many of our American "reality" shows were first hits on European TV. Let's hope this kind of program is one import we can stop at the border. But there's nothing preventing this pattern from repeating itself.