Magazine article The American Prospect

Consuming Passions

Magazine article The American Prospect

Consuming Passions

Article excerpt

The following is a true story: 21-year-old Jennifer is tired of the fact that her boyfriend Chris, who is 26, treats her like a little sister. He never wants to go out. If that's not bad enough, he's too lazy to get a "real" job. Meanwhile, Chris argues that Jen's youth and sexual inexperience account for the fact that things are "awkward" between them in bed. To help them figure out if their relationship is worth saving, Chris and Jennifer turn to the Warner Bros. syndicated television dating show Change of Heart. The show's drill is simple: Couples who have been dating for a period of three to eight months and want the chance to step back and figure out whether they should, as the show's host often puts it, "take their relationship to the next level" or split up are sent on blind dates with people who, on paper, possess some of the qualities they find lacking in their own mates. So Chris is fixed up with Brandy, a slim blonde who doesn't look like anybody's little sister, and Jen spends an evening on the beach with Dave, a fun-loving self-starter who works part time for Hugh Hefner. Then the couple and their respective dates reconvene to describe their encounters for the TV audience and declare whether they want to "stay together" or have a "change of heart."

The show's signature trick is that neither half of the original couple knows what the other will decide until the moment of truth, a moment that carries for the viewer all the fascination and disgust that comes from witnessing a particularly gruesome car wreck, the kind that makes you believe you are about to discover what people actually look like on the inside. That said, if you want to know what happened with Chris and Jen, you will have to read on.

Change of Heart took its place in the realm of late-night dating shows in the fall of 1998, originally conceived as a companion to a revival of the long-running dating show Love Connection, in which contestants choose a blind date from videos and then appear with their dates on the show to report on how things went and decide whether or not to have a second date. Change of Heart upped the ante considerably, putting not just a date but an ongoing relationship on the line. A season later, the new Love Connection is in reruns, while Change of Heart is "the highest-rated syndicated relationship series" in the country, according to Warner Bros., with more than 3 million viewers a day.

Love Connection was itself a slightly higher-stakes version of The Dating Game (1965-1973), in which the audience watched attractive young adults as they searched lightheartedly for potential soul mates. (Guests on the original Dating Game included aspiring actors like Farrah Fawcett, Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Steve Martin.) The Dating Game always had a happy ending: A couple went off on a date with nothing to lose and everything--maybe even true love--to gain.

But television has changed since then. The explosive growth of cable has increased the demand for low-budget content, which in turn has spurred the creation of more and more programming in the "real life" genre. From Jerry Springer to America's Funniest Home Videos, we have gotten used to the fact that all aspects of our lives are fair game for television. And years of watching similar shows have prepared the Change of Heart guests to expose their own wounds and relationships.

What Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, finds most disturbing about the real-life genre "is the sense that simply being on TV obscures all the humiliation." Anyone familiar with MTV's Real World--in which post-adolescents, who have auditioned for the privilege to live together on camera 24 hours a day--knows what Thompson is talking about. So will anyone who tunes in next summer for the newest show in this category, CBS's Island Adventure, in which 16 strangers will go live together on a desert island, deciding every few days amongst themselves which one of them should be exiled and sent home, until only two remain to compete for the million-dollar survival prize. …

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