Seven-year-old Caleb Walker of San Dimas, Calif., is not so sure what drove him to eat ants on the playground. Maybe he was trying to satisfy a dare; maybe he wanted to impress a girl.
Or maybe -- just maybe -- he was imitating one of the gross-out moments on his favorite TV show, ''Fear Factor.'' ''It's about people eating bugs and doing horrible things,'' explains Walker. ''I want to hit my pillow if Mom doesn't let me watch it.''
His goose-down can rest easy; Mom will almost always oblige. ''He always chooses the first person who wins, and cheers for that person,'' Kym Walker says. ''Then he starts going 'Look, I'm winning!' I'm sure in his mind he's fantasized about doing the show.''
Ted Koppel may have declared it ''the end of civilization,'' but NBC has another term for its four-season-old ''Fear'': Family Show. According to recently released ratings, ''Fear'' is the third-most-popular show on broadcast TV among kids 2 to 11 and tweens 9 to 14 this season, behind No. 1 ''American Idol'' and No. 2 ''Survivor'' (which, like ''Fear,'' features vile eats and scantily clad contestants). Given that ''Fear'' and ''Survivor,'' like ''Idol,'' win their 8 p.m. time slots among viewers 18 to 49, it's no wonder NBC and CBS now consider them family fare.
''Up until 'American Idol,' 'Survivor' was No. 1 in prime time with kids,'' says CBS' head of scheduling Kelly Kahl. ''Though it wasn't developed as a family show, it's evolved into something we're proud the whole family can watch.''
NBC president Jeff Zucker is equally enthusiastic about his network's ''Fear.'' ''It's the biggest, most important family show we have because it attracts people of all ages. Kids are watching these 'gross-out' programs on Nickelodeon. They are no different.'' Cyma Zarghami is president of Nickelodeon, where kids have been getting slimed for more than 20 years. '''Fear Factor' is really 'Double Dare,' which is based on a kids' game,'' she says. Well, yeah, but most kids' games (and Nickelodeon shows) don't feature contestants eating pig rectums (as ''Fear'' does) or mammary-enhanced women stripping buck nekkid to earn a peanut-butter-and-chocolate treat (as ''Survivor'' does).