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Monday, March 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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TV reality romance shows draw big ratings, but ...

Newsday

Staunch traditionalists and moral-decay spotters may be convinced that TV's select-a-mate spectaculars, such as "The Bachelorette," "Joe Millionaire" or "Married by America," which asks viewers to vote participating singles into binding wedlock, are the worst thing to happen to the sacred institution of marriage since Reno, Nev., discovered that granting quickie divorces was a better source of revenue than speed traps.

Certainly it's not easy to watch "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn in a lip-lock with the last guy she didn't pick to be her soul mate — or NBC advertising a coyly suggestive edition of "Meet My Folks" featuring three sets of female "tah-wins" — without having it cross your mind that there is some cheapening going on. It may be doubly difficult if you consider "Married by America" on Fox. But let's not lose perspective.

"I don't think the shows trivialize marriage," said Catherine Scheinman, director of acquisitions and co-productions for Cablevision's MetroTV. "I think people take it quite seriously. ... There's been more emphasis on marriage in the last year or two, probably stemming for the state of what's going on in the world."

Rather than "defiling" marriage, she believes, the dating and marriage shows "are tapping into a very deep need people have to connect to other people."

Ted Haimes would agree. He's a creator-producer behind "Married by America" and the earlier Fox relationship show "Temptation Island."

Haimes said he had already gotten calls from people who were incensed by what they decided, sight unseen, is an attack on the sanctity of marriage. "I don't think there's cause for outrage here," he said. "Certainly our goal was to be provocative. Our goal was to create a show that was at once great television and a daring social experiment — to consider this idea that people aren't so good at picking their own partners."

To family psychologist Patricia Pitta, the shows may have instructional uses. She couldn't ignore them, she said, because her patients are talking about them.

"I feel at a loss to try to judge this," Pitta said. "I see it just as entertainment. People like to live vicariously. Does it really represent anything about the state of marriage or relationships? I think what it's saying is that people can go about relationships in many different ways. And considering we have almost a 55 percent divorce rate, maybe these ways are as good as any."

Bride's magazine editor in chief Millie Martini Bratten was harsher in her assessment. She could understand how such shows may qualify as "pure entertainment" for people who are not getting married. "But for the couples who are getting married, it doesn't relate to their lives at all. What we hear from our readers is, I know he's the one for me,' not, 'He's the one for me out of the 17 people I interviewed in the last five weeks.' "

On a personal level, Bratten finds such shows lacking in romantic substance. "They're very shallow," she said. "You have opposites attracting all the time. You have personality differences fall in love for completely unknown reasons. The shows sweep you up in the moment (with) the promise of romance, but leave you feeling kind of empty."

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