TV Article

Nielsen Made Me Do It

Real exorcisms on TV -- ''20/20'' broadcasts the ritual and possibly ushers in a new era of exploitative reality television

My name is Minga,'' the 16-year-old Florida girl shrieked, but she had it wrong. Her real name was Gina, and the name of the game was beat-the-devil in the ratings. The teenager's contorted face was front-page tabloid news even before ABC's 20/20 televised her rite of exorcism two weeks ago — and drew some 29 million viewers, one of the biggest audiences in the show's 13- year history. Ted Koppel discussed the lurid story, with clinical restraint, on Nightline, and David Letterman offered his ''Top 10 Ways to Tell You're Possessed'' (Number one: When the Father Dowling show comes on, your eyes start to sting.)

If the show lacked the sheer horror, say, of Linda Blair's levitational spin in The Exorcist, there definitely was something in the air. Perhaps a gimmick. Was 20/20 abandoning its journalistic principles to ride the tabloid- TV wave of the '90s? ''I think it's an important subject that people care deeply about,'' argues the segment's producer, Rob Wallace. ''They're absolutely fascinated with the idea that tangible evidence of the devil might be on television.'' Of course, some feel the tangible evidence might be television, but the Nielsen numbers seem to confirm his point — Gina's exorcism even outdrew Barbara Walters' March interviews with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Though this type of story won't make its way into the stodgier realm of 60 Minutes — ''It wasn't the kind of thing we would do,'' says executive producer Don Hewitt — it will have an impact on the rest of TV journalism. ''If people are talking about something, it's news,'' says NBC Nightly News executive producer Steve Friedman. ''You can't say, 'Well, we're going to be above the news.' You'll go out of business.''

But with technology advancing at a rapid pace, how far will reality TV go? Will the thirst for sensational invasions take us further than 20/20 exorcism rituals? How about live electroshock treatments? On-camera abortions? A video verité crime of the week? The experts disagree on the future of explicit TV. ''It's going to evolve so that you can come live out of anywhere at any time,'' says Friedman. ''You're going to have a plane in trouble and be able to get it live so you can see the crash.'' But CNN veep Earl Casey disagrees. ''We showed a raw live feed of the Beirut bombing [of U.S. Marine barracks in 1983] on the air, and it resulted in a quick policy not to show anything direct like that. As long as you run things through the same chain of production executives then you won't run into the problem of showing people something they're not prepared for.''

Perhaps the most extreme example of future shock TV may be taking place in San Francisco. Public station KQED is suing for permission to film a San Quentin execution, another TV first. The issue won't be decided until next month, but Tonight show guest host Jay Leno made an early prediction: ''This week, a judge said that the First Amendment does not give television crews the right to film executions. Well, there goes another Fox television program down the drain.''

Originally posted Apr 19, 1991 Published in issue #62 Apr 19, 1991 Order article reprints
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