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`Wife Swap' an exercise in raising ratings.

Byline: Bob Welch The Register-Guard

If you caught ABC's "Wife Swap" Monday night, featuring a couple from Eugene, I'm sorry.

I'd never watched the program before. Unless someone were to duct-tape me to a chair, I'd never watch it again.

It's not that I'm not intrigued by how others live; as a writer, I'm fascinated by such things. It's just that shows like "Wife Swap" are really little more than domestic pro wrestling bouts.

With the lure of $20,000 per "contestant," the producers choose two fringe-element combatants and turn them loose in the ring by having one live with the other's family for almost two weeks, then sit them down and have them complain about each other.

It's "Jerry Springer" without the fists.

In Monday's match, it was Melanie Rios of Eugene vs. Sheila Rush of North Carolina.

Melanie and her family live in an eco-village, where the family's save-the-planet lifestyle includes reclaiming food from compost bins at local markets, not using toilet paper and using their own urine to moisten their compost pile.

(Lest you think that's not going far enough, she and husband Rob Bolman are working on a plan to turn their poop into methane gas to run their stove, which will bring new meaning to the phrase `Honey, it's dinnertime and we're out of gas again.')

OK, so you've got your typical Oregon family - hey, just yesterday my neighbor stopped by to borrow a cup of urine - and your typical North Carolina family: Rush is a power freak who owns five SUVs, requires random drug tests of her teenage son and spends more than $100,000 a year on her pets.

To say she treats her husband like a dog would be music to his unscratched ears. As it is, she doesn't treat him nearly as well as her dogs, which she lavishes with designer pajamas and filet mignon on fine china.

To her credit, Rios, on her visit to North Carolina, at least acts civilly as she tries to adopt Rush's "somebody-get-me-a-therapist" life-

style. Not Rush. If you got stuck next to this woman at a dinner party, you'd stick a fork in your thigh so you could be excused.

She rips Rios' husband, Bolman, time and again. Bellyaches about even taking a bike ride. And, at a gathering of the family's friends, refuses to even talk with people.

I'm sure the producers loved her snobby performance.

You see, that's what shows like this are really all about: not mutual understanding - though that sounds good on the network's promos - but fanning the flames of discord between people.

Why? For the same reason that pro wrestling's Black Scorpion and The Punisher fight - er, pretend to fight - rather than sip tea together: Audiences love conflict. And the audience, ultimately, fattens the wallets of the TV network and the contestants.

The TV culture gets what it asks for. The only reason a show like this survives is because enough people - many of them desperate people, I'd surmise - watch it, which bolsters the Nielsen's ratings, which sells ads, which supports the show.

The flaw here isn't in the show's premise; I've written about urban-rural exchanges in Washington that were hugely valuable for city folks understanding farmers and vice versa. When I was editor of The Register-Guard's 20Below section, we'd sometimes have two students "swap lives" and write about it. Valuable experiences.

But, in both cases, the people went into the exchanges with an honest thirst to learn from each other. In "Wife Swap," the money lure, if not necessarily precluding such nobility, certainly raises questions about the participants' motives. And suffice it to say that ABC's Ripley's-Believe-It-or-Not choices of those participants have far less to do with broadening people's mindsets than with ratings.

In a world where people cloister themselves at the expense of understanding one another, we need to experience the worlds of those different from us.

But there are far better ways than this.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 9, 2007
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