Reality Television Turns Fatally Real

Here in Spain, we have four national private TV channels, and they believe in giving the people what they want. And what the people want is trash.

If you flip through today's Spanish TV listings, you'll see Jerry Springer-like programs that cater to morbid voyeurism into other people's disastrous personal lives; Perez Hilton style programs that sink their roots into celebrity scandals; Big Brother-like programs, including the original itself; Latin American soap operas; and Walker: Texas Ranger.

The very worst of the Springerish programs is called Patricia's Diary, hosted by Patricia Gaztañaga. It gets at least 1.7 million viewers every day on the Antena 3 channel from 7:15 to 9 PM, which is early prime time in Spain. As many as five million viewers watch at least one minute of the show. Its average share is 19%; 63% of viewers are women, 54% are lower- and lower-middle-class, and 45% are over 64 years old. Patricia's Diary specializes in surprises; people contact the program and tell the producers that they want to surprise someone else.

This format, of course, is a disaster waiting to happen, since surprises are often unpleasant; in 1995, a surprise on the Jenny Jones program in America led to a murder, which should have served as an example of what not to do on TV. But Patricia's Diary either didn't know or didn't care about the possible consequences, and so Spain's disaster happened this week.

Ricardo Navarro called up the producers because he wanted to surprise his ex-girlfriend, a 30-year-old Russian woman named Svetlana. He told them he wanted to ask her to come back to him, and that he would propose marriage to her on the air.

Naturally, the program jumped at it; they contacted Svetlana and informed her they had a surprise for her, with no other specifics, and she agreed to appear. She did not know that her surprise would be Navarro.

What they failed to do was check on Navarro's background. He'd been convicted of abusing a previous girlfriend and sentenced to 11 months in prison, which he had not yet served; Svetlana charged him with harassment four months ago, after the breakup, and Navarro was convicted. The courts put him under a restraining order, though reports are not clear whether the order referred to Svetlana or the former girlfriend.

Antena 3 taped the show on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 14, and ran it that night. Navarro got down on one knee and proposed to Svetlana, and she said no. Gaztañaga pressured her and she repeated her rejection. (Video included in this report.) On Sunday Navarro cut her throat at the entrance to her Alicante apartment. She died on Monday.

Naturally, the Spanish media has been full of blasts at Patricia's Diary during the last two days, calling the program irresponsible, along with shameful, embarrassing, grotesque, unworthy, morbid, miserable, frivolous, and dishonest. There have been calls for censorship from feminist organizations, and there has been a good deal of middlebrow media breast-beating over the bad taste of the television audience.

Oddly enough, there hasn't been any America-bashing. Normally, when the Spanish media doesn't like something, they try to blame it on the United States. European school shootings? Dropout rate rising? Increased pharmaceutical consumption? Sedentary couch potatoes getting fat? Anorexia and bulimia? Blame American society and its nefarious influence.

We American expats in Europe rapidly develop a pretty thick skin when it comes to the daily bashing of Americans we hear. And we hear plenty of it, both from Europeans and from our fellow Americans, many of whom suffer from what George Orwell called "transferred nationalism." Euros and renegade Americans sometimes agree on what they don't like about us Yanks: we only care about money, we're too religious, we're hyper-patriotic, we're racist, we're superficial and phony. When they disagree, though, it's nearly always because American expats idealize Europeans-oh, they're so well-educated, they're so cultured, so intellectual, so enlightened.

So it is refreshing that the media is not blaming the Patricia's Diary fiasco on the Yanquis, though - they know only too well whose fault it is.

The oh-so-sophisticated European market gets what it wants, and so Patricia's Diary (after the murder, on her show, Patricia declined all responsibility and did not apologize) is still on the air.

Yesterday, on the show, a woman tried to get two of her feuding friends to make up, and some high-school kids set up a blind date for one of their buddies.

John Chappell is a translator and English teacher who lives in Barcelona. He blogs at Inside Europe: Iberian Notes.