‘Ultimate fighting’ is worst of real TV trend

Ultimate fighting, a form of no-holds-barred martial arts contest, is one of the latest trends in a booming market for “real TV.” The brutal fights, which draw up to 300,000 viewers, reflect a disturbing appetite for actual violence in entertainment. Ultimate fighting cultivates the authenticity of a street brawl. Unlike boxing, there are no weight classes, fighters wear no gloves or protective headgear and the sport’s minimal rules prohibit only eye gouging, blows to the throat and “fishhooking.” Anything else, including choke holds, is considered fair play.The contests, which pair fighters from different martial arts disciplines, seem derived from the plots of Bruce Lee movies. The difference, of course, is that in ultimate fighting there are no stunts. The fighters are actually hurt, and that is what fans pay to see. The fights are so bloody that one New York senator compares the sport to cockfighting. The American Medical Association has called for a ban on ultimate fighting, and several men have died after participating in similar “tough man” competitions. The sport is so dangerous that it has been banned in some states, but danger, of course, is central to its appeal.
Currently, ultimate fighting bouts are available on TV only through pay-per-view. But equally brutal footage is broadcast regularly. The Fox special “Close Call: Cheating Death,” which featured video of a bomb explosion burning a police officer, is one example. Even the promos for these shows are frightening. Viewers who sit down to watch “The Simpsons” can find themselves assaulted during the commercial breaks by graphic footage of a bear mauling a woman — all part of an ad for an upcoming show entitled “When Animals Attack.”Reality TV shows, like tabloids, serve up personal catastrophes for public consumption. Previously, we could only watch simulated shark attacks in “Jaws” movies. But — what luck — when a bystander has a video camera, one person’s maiming can become another person’s viewing pleasure and can generate profit for the network. These shows, like ultimate fighting matches, are popular because they show real events happening to real people. Such events, which might normally be called tragedies, are served up as entertainment: Pull up a chair, grab a bag of chips and sit down to watch as a bungee jumper has both his legs broken.
Reality TV producers defend their product by pointing to newscasts, which show similarly graphic footage but are an accepted part of the TV lineup. But while newscasts may also show real disasters, they do so in a different context and for a different purpose — not to entertain, but to inform. At their best, newscasts provide socially relevant information in a meaningful context.
Communications scholars who study the effects of violence in the media fear that repeated viewing of violent acts will lead to desensitization and a lack of empathy for human suffering. The popularity of reality television, however, indicates that we may be worse off than that. These shows succeed by tapping into the same perverse motivation that causes rubberneckers to stare at a bloody car accident. Reality TV doesn’t just desensitize viewers to violence, it encourages voyeurism. It sensationalizes human suffering by offering it up as entertainment.