By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, March 18, 2010; C05
American reality TV has left a trail of corpses, but we can still say this: No one appears to have been executed on any of the U.S. shows.
That's apparently not the case in France, where, according to a new French documentary series, people would be willing to kill their countrymen for their 15 minutes of fame.
Eighty people who thought they were participating in the shooting of a pilot for a French reality series were willing to deliver potentially lethal electric shocks to a contestant who had incorrectly answered knowledge questions, according to the documentary, "The Game of Death," airing on French TV on Wednesday night.
"Zone Xtreme" seemed to have a pretty standard game-show format, complete with wildly enthusiastic studio audience, a glam well-known TV weatherwoman hostess, gaudy lighting, etc., said the French press reports.
In truth, the would-be reality series participants were part of an experiment that was turned into the documentary.
In "Zone Xtreme," the faux contestants who gave all the wrong answers were actually actors. Each "contestant" was strapped into an electric chair. The 80 wannabe famesters were each asked to punish the contestant, when a wrong answer was given, by administering up to 460 volts of electricity. The majority of them ignored the contestant's screams and obeyed the orders of the weather-chick hostess to ratchet up the jolt. They also obeyed the chant of "Punishment!" from the studio audience -- which did not know the game show was a fake -- until the contestant fell silent and appeared to have died. Only 16 contestants walked away, according to press reports.
The idea for the show came from the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted the experiment at Yale University in the 1960s. Milgram found that most people, if pushed by an authority figure, would administer ostensibly dangerous electric shocks to another person. His experiment became famous, having been conducted at the same time as the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
As for American reality TV, it's had its share of actual deaths -- though not on air. Among them:
-- Major fame-seeker Ryan Jenkins, star of the VH1 reality series "Megan Wants a Millionaire" and "I Love Money 3," was found dead of apparent suicide after becoming the only person of interest in the slaying of his wife.
-- The producers of MTV's save-an-addict reality series "Gone Too Far" might have gone too far when they had show host Adam Goldstein, a.k.a. DJ AM, go into a bodega to buy a crack pipe because they wanted the footage. Goldstein, a recovering addict who said he'd been clean 11 years, was found dead in his apartment three days after shooting ended on the show. Authorities found a lethal cocktail of crack and prescription drugs in his system and a crack pipe in his apartment.
-- Avid runner Tom Sparks died in November 2009 after participating in the filming of ABC's "Wipeout" when he experienced knee pain, followed by shortness of breath, followed by a stroke.
We reached out to the TV community for their thoughts on "Zone Xtreme." By press time, almost no executive had returned calls to dignify the show with his own comments -- maybe they were too busy wondering how to get the rights.
One brave executive did call back and acknowledged he'd once told a reality-TV exec he thought it would make an interesting reality series to re-create some of the more bizarre social-psychology experiments -- as appears to have been done in France. It never came to anything, said the executive, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.