‘Til death do us part

Audra Bouffard

Okay, America. Pop-quiz time:

Marriage. Is it: (a) an intimate union between two individuals recognized by the state, (b) the joining of a man and woman in the eyes of God, or (c) a competitive sport on reality TV produced for the entertainment of millions?

If you guessed (c), welcome to the 21st century. Yes, it seems reality TV has found its latest victim, this time in the age-old convention of marriage. From “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” to “Trading Spouses,” it appears networks like FOX are determined to turn marriage into silly, sexy and sometimes stupid reality shows. With the nation’s divorce rates climbing to an all time high at 51 percent, people are questioning whether “Til Death Do Us Part” is a promise of love, or the ultimate reality show punch line.

For Prospect, Conn., Bethel Baptist Church pastor Edward Bouffard, 54, there is no denying the moral decline reality television has brought upon the once considered “holy” institution of marriage.

“From a pastor’s standpoint, these so-called reality shows are demoralizing the sanctity of marriage by making it a game,” Bouffard says. “There’s no more courtship, no more friendship, no more sacredness. One thing I stress in prenuptial counseling is that marriage is an institution not to be entered into lightly. People and television don’t really heed those words anymore.”

In 1966, reality TV and matrimony first said “I do” with the ABC hit show “The Newlywed Game.” The tell-all game show featured four couples, all married less than two years, responding to questions about their relationships in hopes to match their answers and win a prize. Not matching usually meant an argument, and host Bob Eubanks did everything possible to keep the couples bickering and the audience laughing.

Reality TV and marriage’s most recent couplings seem to have stemmed from the age old question, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” The one hour show, which debuted on Fox in February 2000, featured 50 women competing against each other in a Miss America like contest to marry a rich and eligible bachelor they never laid eyes on. An estimated 22 million viewers tuned in to watch the strangers say ‘I do,’ but despite the ratings, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” had critics claiming television had hit a all-time low. Little did they know what reality TV had in store.

On MTV’s “Newlyweds,” Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson canoodle and quarrel while viewers gamble on how long their game of house will last. ABC’s “The Bachelor” turns the marriage proposal into a game show victory: the equivalent of a new car or trip to Fiji.

No, reality shows like “Newlyweds” and “The Bachelor” are not the most sacred visions of matrimony, but these days, reverence has as much to do with reality TV as reality does.

According to real life newlywed Jill Ann Grosch, who said her I do’s on Nov. 25th, these so-called reality shows have as much do with real life matrimony as “American Idol” does to natural born talent.

“How could they relate to my life?” says the 25-year-old Wolcott, Conn., resident and Quinnipiac Alumni. “My husband and I have normal jobs and come home to boring nights. We’re not actors, we don’t have cameras in our faces, and Lord knows we’re not professional singers like Nick and Jess. It’s not an accurate reflection of reality at all.”

But Quinnipiac University student Tricia Altieri, 21, is still able to make real life parallels between the “Newlyweds” and her love life, even amid the glitz and over-the-top high jinks of reality TV relationships.

“I think our relationship has the same kind of funny little quirks that ‘Newlyweds’ does,” says the Hamden, native about her three year romance with boyfriend Salvatore Morello. “We both say and do dumb things, and as stupid as they are, it’s one of the things you love about your relationship. Our lifestyle may be nothing like theirs, but the foundation of our love is similar.”

Audiences are inundatedwith reality programs like “Newlyweds” and “Joe Millionaire,” which portray marriage as a covenant of convenience, not commitment. On top of that, celebrity superstars like Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears change spouses faster than they change hairstyles. And according to the National Center for Health Statistics, four out of every 1,000 people in the U.S. are divorced.

“These types of reality shows portray marriage as something to be rushed into with little planning or thought,” Bouffard says. “They send a poor message to society. Divorce is commonplace and almost expected today. Granted, it’s a result of more than just TV shows, but the message is clear: Marriage is not as important and sacred as it once was.”

Reality TV staples like “The Bachelor” turn matrimony into 401(k) plans for desperate women. “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?” and “Married by America” evoke ideas that marriage is based on money, looks and popularity, but rarely love.

“The problem is most marriages today lack genuine love,” Bouffard says. “It’s based on materialism or quick satisfaction, like we see on TV. I liken joining one of these shows to bungee-jumping off a bridge. Sure, the cable might hold, but why take the chance? Real love endures all things.”

While many, like Bouffard, argue that Hollywood should not portray marriage as a game but as a serious commitment, audiences everywhere are still addicted to the sudden flood of relationship reality shows plaguing the nation.

“I’m completely addicted to ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Newlyweds,'” Altieri says. “Yes, they’re exploitive. Yes, they’re ridiculous. And yes, they probably degrade people who are actually in love and want to get married. But they’re also funny, and sometimes an escape from every day dating is fun to watch.”

Altieri is not alone. The final episode of “Joe Millionaire” alone roped in 7million viewers, while “Bachelorette” couple Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter brought ABC over 17 million viewers with their $3 million televised wedding in December 2003. So what is it about these reality shows that captures our attention and glues us to the TV so well?

“It’s all about the drama,” Altieri says. “I know you can’t base an entire relationship on five dates, especially in shows like ‘The Bachelor’ where they’re dating 10 girls at once. But something about the craziness and cat fights and the drama makes you want to watch.”

All drama aside, what exactly is the matrimonial message shows like Fox’s “Trading Spouses,” – which showcases families trading heads of their households until chaos ensues- are trying to portray to their television audiences?

“I don’t think they’re trying to depict any specific message about marriage,” says Grosch. “They’re not brazenly trying to say it’s a joke or a laughing matter. They’re focused more on the drama and exploiting the cattiness and stupidity of the cast members. It’s about the ratings, not the relationships.”

For Bouffard, the lesson is more monetary than matrimonial.

“All we learn is that network executives will drop to the lowest common denominator to produce any drivel that will fill an hour-long time slot,” he says. “Advertisers are just trying to make money and money is the root of all evil. It’s all a vicious cycle.”

So are we just a nation of “Joe Millionaires,” and “Bachelorettes” hoping to make our marriage fantasies the ultimate reality show love prize?

“I think people go on these reality shows for the same reason they go to casinos,” Grosch says, “hoping to hit the jackpot. But in the end, they usually wind up broke or alone in a bar.”