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A "Hunger" For Death and Ratings
Published on April 1, 2012 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

With the hype surrounding The Hunger Games, it’s not surprising that Battle Royale, the 2000 Japanese film where kids must kill each other to win a competition, was recently released on Blu-ray.

While The Hunger Games has been criticized as nothing more than a copy of Battle Royale, the concept of death serving as entertainment has been the plot of many films. There’s The Running Man, Death Race 2000, which spawned a remake and a sequel, and my personal favorite, Series 7: The Contenders, a brilliant portrayal of a televised death sport as just another form of reality TV.

Of course, these films – and many more – raise the question of why people are drawn to movies that portray death as a form of entertainment in the future. Obviously, part of it is a nod to periods of history where people were entertained by executions and gladiator battles. These films also toy with the knowledge that we enjoy some forms of entertainment today where there is serious violence and a possibility of death.

Racing is the clearest example. It’s long been criticized for simply being an excuse to witness a wreck. The recent bounty program controversy involving the NFL’s New Orleans Saints shocked some that players might be receiving bonuses for hits that injure other players, but it certainly highlights the level of violence possible as we are “entertained.” And, of course, we can’t forget Mike Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a boxing match.

But these are only the obvious examples. We are already being entertained by death every time the cable news channels present wall-to-wall coverage of a celebrity’s death. The death of Anna Nicole Smith is a classic example. It was obvious from the first episode of her reality show that she was troubled. Yet, people continued to watch. The relentless coverage of her death wasn’t so much about news but wrapping up a tragic reality show.

When CNN’s Jack Cafferty ended a news report by asking Wolf Blitzer if Anna Nicole was still dead, he caught flack for disrespecting the dead. But he was actually making a valid criticism of the coverage. After a certain point, it’s no longer reporting news but exploiting an issue for ratings. Death becomes entertainment.

The deaths of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson also show that networks have realized the entertainment value – and ratings value – of a celebrity’s passing. It also adds a morbid quality to celebrity news focused on a star’s troubles with drugs or the law. There’s a sense it’s not about reporting a story but providing the prologue for the eventual tragic end that we are encouraged to believe no one saw coming – except for a few savvy TV news producers.

The movies that tell stories about a future where death sports are the norm missed the mark on celebrity deaths. But if there is one movie that saw this trend coming it’s Network. The 1976 film tells the story of newscaster Howard Beale, who becomes a ratings-grabbing celebrity after he pledges on-air to kill himself – proving that when it comes to death, there are plenty of people eager to tune in.

J.K. Eisen writes about entertainment and the world around him. He lives in the Deep South.

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