Pain vs. gain: Reality bites back on game shows

About 8 million viewers have been watching the slips and falls and splats each week on ABC’s Wipeout. I wasn’t one of them until recently, when I happened to catch a short segment of the show.

After 10 minutes of seeing hapless contestants getting smacked with the Plank in the Face and ricocheting off the Big Balls, I was wincing. It looked… well, really painful. In fact it looked like an injury waiting to happen.

What’s up with the game shows and reality shows these days? Increasingly, they’ve turned into ordeals of physical endurance – sometimes to the detriment of the contestants.

Take “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!”, which just concluded this past week. Actor Stephen Baldwin bailed out of the show early, unable to take the Costa Rican jungle any longer. He told reporters he received more than 125 insect bites in eight days, leading to an allergic reaction that caused him to lose 22 pounds.

In the second season of “Survivor,” one of the contestants, Michael Skupin, had to be evacuated from the Australian outback after he blacked out and fell into a fire pit, sustaining third-degree burns to his hands. Last year another “Survivor” contestant was hobbled by a bad infection in his heel.

Then there’s “Dancing with the Stars,” which was plagued with injuries this past season – torn muscles, pinched nerves and, for one contestant, a separated shoulder.

It’s hard to know whether these are isolated incidents. Although safety standards do exist in the entertainment industry, there doesn’t appear to be any national reporting system that tracks and analyzes injuries, especially injuries involving civilian participants on game shows and reality shows.

One has to wonder whether the participants in “Survivor,” “Wipeout” and the like truly understand what they’re signing up for. In an interview earlier this year with People magazine, skater Kristi Yamaguchi offered her perspective on why so many contestants were getting hurt on “Dancing With the Stars”:

“The injuries aren’t surprising,” Yamaguchi says of season 8’s spate of injuries. “People don’t know how physical it gets. I think that’s one reason why athletes do well – they know how to listen to their bodies.”

The contestants on “Wipeout” don’t even have to be in particularly good physical shape to be considered for the show. According to the casting information, candidates “must be able to swim, must currently live in California (huh?) [and must be] fun, strong-willed, outgoing, and have a great sense of humor.”

What is it like to be on “Wipeout”? An Associated Press reporter gave it a try last month. Derrik J. Lang writes:

From the vantage point of my sofa, the “Wipeout” obstacle course always seemed akin to a Disneyland attraction or a giant Slip ‘n’ Slide. In person, my perspective completely changed as I witnessed The Qualifier spit out beaten, bruised and – in one instance – vomiting contestants.”

The only safety equipment: “a lifejacket festooned with the splashy ‘Wipeout’ logo and some lace-up ankle covers.” The water was cold, and as for the mud, Lang writes, “it was cold and watery, not warm and gooey. It was also, as I learned after leaping with my mouth gaping open, very gritty.”

This season the show did away with safety helmets in order to give viewers a better look at the contestants’ faces. According to the show’s executive producer, helmets aren’t needed because all the surfaces on the obstacle course are foam-padded to prevent head injuries. Fair enough, but there seem to be plenty of other ways for contestants to get hurt on this show – and all for a shot at $50,000 and a chance to provide a few minutes’ worth of entertainment value to the TV-watching public.

Is it worth it? It almost makes one yearn for the days when game shows were primarily a battle of wits and the only thing you were likely to strain was your cerebral cortex.

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