Would You Kill to Be on TV?

New documentary reveals why some people stop at nothing for fame and celebrity

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IT’S NO SURPRISE that aspiring reality TV stars will sometimes go to extreme lengths in the hopes of landing a big break. From the island-bound tribes of “Survivor” to the bug-eating daredevils of “Fear Factor,” a certain unabashed subset of the fame-chasing population has long been attracted to the reality genre. According to a new French documentary, however, many would-be reality stars would do more than eat a few bugs for a shot at television stardom, and some would even commit murder.

Producers of the documentary “The Game of Death,” which aired last Wednesday on French television, recruited 80 ordinary people and told them they were appearing on a new reality quiz show, one in which contestants are zapped with jolts of electricity whenever they give incorrect answers. When those same 80 participants were placed in charge of administering the voltage, the vast majority were willing to deliver potentially fatal shocks to contestants who answered incorrectly.

Fortunately, the contestants on the faux program were actually actors, hired by the film’s producers to flail about in feigned agony as the phony shocks were delivered. Producers also recruited a minor French celebrity to pose as the show’s hostess — a sexy weatherwoman who commanded the 80 participants to increase the shock voltage each time one of the contestants got a question wrong. Most of the participants ignored the contestants’ screams for mercy and continued increasing the voltage until the contestants pretended to die. Of the 80 participants, only 16 walked away from the show.

A studio audience was also present at the taping, although the audience members were unaware that the show was a fake, and in fact many seemed to welcome the maltreatment of the contestants. Like a scene out of the 1987 film “The Running Man,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a convict trying to survive a televised execution, the audience of the phony quiz show raucously encouraged the cruelty, chanting “punishment” whenever contestants failed to answer correctly. The experiment seems to suggest not only how far ordinary folks will go to achieve their 15 minutes of fame, but also how quickly society can regress to the gladiator contests of Ancient Rome, where death was routinely put on display to entertain the masses.

“The Game of Death” was inspired by controversial experiments performed in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University who found that a sizable percentage of the population could be coerced into administering fatal shocks at the behest of an authoritative figure. Milgram devised the experiments to answer the question of how liable society should hold Nazi subordinates for atrocities they committed during the Holocaust. The psychologist reasoned that Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann were only following orders, and that many of us, when put in similar circumstances, could be coerced into committing similar deeds. Milgram’s experiments, while considered unethical by contemporary testing standards, are often cited in situations where the nature of human obedience comes into question. Similarly, “The Game of Death” may prove equally influential in exposing a celebrity-obsessed culture that fetishizes fame for its own sake.

The brainchild behind “The Game of Death” is the French producer Christophe Nick, who came up with the idea after watching “The Weakest Link,” a game show in which contestants routinely back-stab their fellow contestants in order to win. As Nick’s project progressed, however, his faux quiz show began to reveal the seductive nature of fame at its darkest level. “Television is a power — we know that, but it remained theoretical,” Nick said in an interview with the daily Le Parisien on Wednesday. “I asked myself: Is it so strong that it can turn us into potential torturers?”

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Originally published in Show Business Weekly, March 2010

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