Ira Robbins
August 09, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Operators are standing by….

Long before home shop-ping channels and late-night infomercials proved how deeply Americans love their sales pitches, television’s virtual boutique was already doing bang-up business. Hawking wares directly to a vast, unblinking constituency, wily entrepreneurs have induced waves of sudden need for celebrity thigh exercisers, remarkable kitchen knives, and those unforgettable hit songs of the ’70s.

And what better product to push on television than packaged television? At first, it was just ancient episodes of I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners on offer. Then video Barnums got into the act, peddling meteorological calamities, motivational seminars, and war documentaries. Last November, the siren of sensationalism revved up with a 36-minute tape of outtakes from Cops, Fox’s reality series that makes dubious entertainment of police doing their jobs. Tantalizing viewers with the come-on of footage that didn’t clear Standards and Practices, Cops: Too Hot For TV! has already moved a half-million copies through the tube and is just now being sprung for sale at stores.

The stores-second strategy is understandable in light of the tape’s paltry contents. Compared with the movies that fill the shelves of your local Blockbuster, this cavalcade of stopped cars and sobriety tests is as shocking as a rough tackle during the Super Bowl. The producers pad the program with benign uniformed slapstick: An officer chases a chicken, a patrol car runs out of gas, a wisecracking policeman gamely goes on ”cow patrol.” There’s also an epilogue to brief fans on additional Cops merchandise (like Cops: In Hot Pursuit and Cops: Caught in the Act, which MVP will release to stores over the next two months). Otherwise, the dismal parade of losers having their privacy invaded differs from Cops‘ usual tour of duty only in unbleeped expletives, uncovered skin, and a prostitution sting in which an officer asks a hooker of indeterminate gender, ”You got a penis?”

No such forthrightness has ever sullied the smarmy charm of The Newlywed Game (Vols. I, II, and Lost Episodes). Debuting in 1966 with imperturbable host Bob Eubanks (who pitches the tapes on the Home Shopping Network), the show peeked at the sexual revolution through euphemistic goggles, prodding couples with intimate questions about ”making whoopee.” In this quaintly salacious forerunner of today’s bare-knuckle talk shows, another era’s Al and Peg Bundys committed their public auto-humiliation with fixed smiles and gritted teeth, revealing family secrets and simmering resentments on the way to a chilly ”How could you?” ride home from the studio.

Compiled on two hour-long volumes of Classic Moments and the 20-minute Lost Episodes (different title, more of the same), The Newlywed Game remains sanitized for viewers’ protection. The censors who kept ’60s and ’70s ears from being scandalized are still at it, albeit inconsistently: ”Boobs” gets through once but not twice; in the first instance, however, a remark about ”more than a mouthful” falls under the audio ax. In one bout of domestic dysfunction (on Vol. I), a woman turns a hypothetical question about her mate’s old girlfriend into an accusation of perfidy. Before she’s through, the nervously grinning husband has been promised ”restriction for years,” with the warning ”It’ll go up your navel.” Though possibly of interest to cultural anthropologists, marriage counselors, or prosecutors of fashion crimes, these reruns are too mild and dated to be serious fun.

Nature tapes at least guarantee a less self-conscious collection of subjects. Dangerous Encounters, hosted and executive-produced by Marty Stouffer of PBS’ Wild America series, delivers impressively raw scenes of animals hunting prey and fending off enemies. Among the frightful events are a king snake subduing and swallowing a rattler, two grasshopper mice viciously fighting with a scorpion, and a game-park visitor’s unexpected bison ride.

Stouffer, who has been accused of staging scrimmages for the camera, admitted to a Denver newspaper that the episode here in which a mountain lion attacks, not seriously injuring, a cross-country skier is a ”factual re-creation.” The nighttime contretemps between a hungry alligator and a hapless angler also smells fishy. But the gory sight of a polar bear feasting on a seal couldn’t be more stomach-turningly real. Too hot for TV? Not exactly, but such ordinary behavior by animals makes Dangerous Encounters far more disturbing than the stupid people tricks captured on Cops and The Newlywed Game. Cops: Too Hot for TV!: C+ The Newlywed Game: Classic Moments, Vols. I and II: C The Newlywed Game: The Lost Episodes: D Dangerous Encounters: B-

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