Think local television's reality-crazed? You haven't seen anything yet. Try Japan, for example.
The Japanese are big on humiliation in their shows, and some of their supercharged reality programs even have featured (wait for it) farting competitions, according to an article on the phenomenon in the Australian newspaper The Age.
Endurance, which got the Japanese reality trend going in the 1980s, had contestants vying to see who could stand more pain, or consume the most revolting stuff. Some of these ideas have trickled down to local TV, with a Bip program called B'hafra'a focusing on just how well contestants could answer quiz questions while someone was screaming at them, or had their faces put on a Ping-Pong table while someone volleyed off them. A live version of Tetris, with participants forced to contort their bodies to avoid the falling shapes, was also a hit.
Eating contests are also popular. Among Japanese programs currently being copied in the US and elsewhere is one called Hurl, in which contestants compete to see who can eat the most food and then keep it down after a session on a spinning carnival ride. Another featured two men who were given a huge amount of beer to drink while sitting on some ice, with an outhouse a short distance away. First one to go loses. Clips from these and other Japanese reality shows are all the rage on YouTube and other such sites.
The ultimate, however, appears to have been Nasubi, who in January 1998 was selected from a group of comedians and taken to a one-room flat in Tokyo, according to Syberpunk, a Web site focusing on unusual elements of Japanese life.
There he was given a stack of magazines and a pile of postcards, and told to strip naked. The room was essentially bare except for a cushion, radio, phone, notebooks and some pens. No food, no toilet paper. All his needs were to be won by sending postcards into contests. He would stay there until he won $10,000 in prizes.
The show became so popular, according to The Age, that each Sunday night about 17 million viewers tuned in. In February, luck was with him - he won some jelly, his first food in two weeks, according to the report. Later he won some rice. However, fighting off adversity is an admired trait in Japan, and the show became a huge hit. Nasubi became a lean, mean, postcard writing machine, sending out 3,000 to 8,000 a month. Gradually he won more items, but a TV didn't prove very useful when it turned out he had no antenna or cable in the apartment.
When his rice ran out, he ate dog food, according to the report. When the crazed Japanese media discovered where he was living, the producers moved him, but forgot to bring along his rice. A live Internet feed to the apartment was set up, with our hero seen talking to a stuffed animal he won or playing with car tires. In September, he was given a summer holiday on the beach, but still naked. Only 18 months later, when he won another bag of rice, putting him over the necessary sum to win, was he given back his clothes. Among items he won: a watermelon, a cutlery set, free tickets to the Spice Girls movie, stuffed animals and dental care products.
Game Center CX is currently making waves in Japan, featuring an ordinary office worker being forced to play video games nonstop. Asked why the Japanese are attracted to the crueler, wilder forms of reality TV, media critic Teddy Jimvo told The Age it has something to do with the country's economic problems. "It makes people feel better to see someone who is suffering or in a worse position than you are," he said.
With this country experiencing its own economic hardships, one can only hope that our TV tastes won't parallel the sinking tastes of the Land of the Rising Sun.