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Fox Faces its Moment of Truth

by Christopher Gildemeister


"I think the show is going to rock America. I think it's going to be talked about around every water cooler and coffee pot in the country." – The Moment of Truth creator Howard Schultz (AP, January 23, 2008)


Two weeks ago, this column stated that parents seeking family-friendly programming safe for their children to watch “couldn’t do better” than tune into the Fox network’s game shows.


Leave it to Fox to tarnish its own silver lining.


On January 23rd, Fox showed the premiere episode of The Moment of Truth, a game show in which contestants submit to being asked 21 deeply personal and potentially hurtful questions -- in front of their family, friends, co-workers, a studio audience and everyone in America who is watching. Before the episode is filmed, contestants are hooked up to a polygraph machine and asked 50 to 75 prying and prurient questions, along the lines of, "Have you ever made a sexy video and uploaded it to the Internet?" or "Do you think you'll still be married to your husband five years from now?" The questions become increasingly personal and embarrassing as the game progresses. Potentially, a contestant can win half a million dollars – if they continue to submit to the questioning.


In an era when The Jerry Springer Show continues to garner an audience, it is perhaps not surprising that such a deeply offensive and inappropriate concept would attract a few viewers. Less easy to understand is why a network charged with using the publicly-owned airwaves “in the public interest” would want to air a series designed to appeal only to an audience’s crudest and basest instincts.


Mike Darnell, Fox's President of "Alternative Entertainment," (and what an apt description of The Moment of Truth that phrase is!) has tried to make his program sound like a noble quest for Veritas, saying "”We’re not out to destroy people…What I care about is it is causing a dialogue about telling the truth.” As though some higher “truth” is being served by the sleazy questions this show asks.


Well aware of the program’s lascivious content, Fox refused to send copies of the show to critics for review before it aired. But despite the questions of good taste this behavior might’ve raised, The Moment of Truth was given Fox's best time slot: directly following monster smash-hit American Idol.


Undaunted by The Moment of Truth‘s emphasis on sex and adult material, Fox chose to air the program in the post-Idol timeslot, knowing full well that the audience for American Idol – an audience packed with families and children – would likely stay tuned to see the network’s new game show immediately afterward. Indeed, the series kept 94 percent of Idol’s audience.


Of course, Fox executives deny that any harm could come to children in the audience as a result of the show’s seamy questions. The Moment of Truth creator Howard Schultz claims, “We won't ask any question that in any way, shape or form can harm a minor child under the age of 18. So we would not ask, for example, a question of the person in the chair, 'Have you ever used your child as a pawn against your ex-spouse?' We wouldn't ask questions where children could be watching and could be harmed by the question."


So what were some of the “harmless” questions children in the viewing audience witnessed during The Moment of Truth‘s premiere broadcast?


  • "As a football player, did you ever sneak a peek at another player's privates while taking a shower?"

  • "Have you ever had sexual relations with someone the very same day you met them?"

  • "Have you ever had a sexual fantasy while attending Mass?"

  • “Have you ever padded your underwear to look more well-endowed?" (After the contestant answered “Yes,” the camera zoomed directly into his crotch.)


Nor were such questions merely a first-episode tease, intended to attract new viewers. Future episodes promise to ask questions like “Have you ever forced yourself to throw up?”, “Did you ever think your spouse might be homosexual?”, and “"Have you ever illegally smuggled something into this country?"


Even those questions not overtly sexual in nature, far from opening a “dialogue about telling the truth,” were clearly intended to be deeply hurtful.  Contestant Ty was asked if he has delayed having children because he is not sure that Catia, his wife of two and a half years, would be his “lifelong partner.” Upon Ty’s truthful answer of “yes,” Catia looked devastated. Creator Schultz has even admitted, "There was a young man on the show and his girlfriend was sitting on the family and friends couch…On the drive home from the show, they broke up.  And he has spent the last month and a half trying to get her back."


Apparently, the breakup of a relationship or marriage as a result of the program’s questions could not possibly harm children.


“I will not be watching that show with my wife in the same room, because the one thing I don’t want my wife asking is, ‘What’s your answer to that question?’ ” –Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori (TV Week, January 23. 2008)


Other game shows frequently show wives, parents and siblings playing the part of advisers or cheerleaders for the contestants. On The Moment of Truth, the loved ones are present to witness their relative’s humiliation...or to become enraged by their revelations. Either way, injury to personal lives and relationships is this program’s stock in trade.


The program’s potential for harm became a fact in Colombia. There, a contestant on that country’s version of The Moment of Truth confessed on the air that she had hired someone to kill her husband – and was rewarded with $25,000 as a result.


The Colombian TV network pulled the show off the air after negative publicity and a threat of legal action. Given Fox’s enthusiasm for odious programming, one must wonder whether it was this event that actually encouraged Fox to pick up and produce its own version of the show.


Tellingly, Darnell bought the concept for The Moment of Truth away from NBC, after that network decided not to produce a game show with so salacious (and potentially damaging) a concept. It says much that Fox is willing to purchase, produce and show a program that other networks refused for reasons of good taste, and which was actually pulled off TV in another country for hosting a would-be murderer. Obviously, Darnell and Fox care less about “truth” than they do about continuing Fox’s penchant for promoting puerile programming.


The actual game competition on the program is dull, since the contestants know what questions they may be asked and have ample time to decide not to compete. As a result, The Moment of Truth is less a genuine competition than an excuse to air smarmy sex remarks and sniggering innuendo. Every third or fourth question is sexual in nature; and even the questions which aren’t explicitly sexual have great potential to hurt feelings and damage the contestants’ relationships with their spouses and family members.


The Moment of Truth represents a new low even for the Fox network. Now, not even a simple game show is safe from the crassly sexualized and hurtful content Fox gleefully crams into its dramas, sitcoms and cartoons. With the corruption of the game show format, Fox’s pursuit of prurient programming is complete...until the network can think of some way to pervert football games.


“Fox is renowned for callous programming. It was the network that put forth Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? and Temptation Island. But unfortunately, this new series is not quite as innocently ill- intentioned…Ordinarily contestants stand to lose their winnings. Losers on The Moment of Truth don’t go home merely empty-handed; they could return to a home filled with hate.”  -- TV critic Alessandra Stanley (New York Times, January 25, 2008)

TV Trends: Caroline Schulenburg and Adam Shuler contributed to this report.

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