Too hot for TV?

Risque fare outraging Dutch

Dutch TV viewers are being turned off by a wave of controversial programs provided by public and commercial broadcasters alike. Despite a long tradition of television that pushes the boundaries of the acceptable in the Netherlands, contentious TV content has pushed many viewers too far.

Some weeks ago, Rotterdam-based columnist Hugo Borst was watching the daily news on family channel RTL with his 11-year-old son while having dinner. At 6:45 p.m., with no warning, father and son were witness to excerpts from a home video showing the goalkeeper of a Dutch professional soccer team being introduced in embarrassingly intimate terms to a sex toy by a girlfriend.

Furious about the unexpected images, Borst called the program's editor for an explanation. The response was that the sex video was considered a news item because it was placed on the Internet that day by the goalie's vengeful ex-lover.

Borst's reaction was to write a column under the headline: "Have they lost their minds at RTL?"

Less explicit ? but nonetheless controversial ? is the latest programming effort by Talpa, the commercial station owned by entertainment mogul John de Mol. In a bid to boost ratings, Talpa has been airing a new reality format, "The Golden Cage," in which participants spend a year in a luxurious villa hoping to win a fortune so big they'd never have to work again. The participation of at least two candidates ? who get to vote each other off in this dog-eat-dog format ? has led to a hurricane of condemnation.

Not the least controversial was the behavior of Surinam-born housemate Natasia, mother of children ages 6 and 9, which even led to questions in the Dutch Parliament by two members of the local Socialist Party. The decision of the mother to leave her children ? the youngest is recovering from a liver operation ? for a year also led to investigations by children's welfare organizations.

According to a Talpa spokesperson, all the candidates in "Golden Cage" were extensively tested for their mental soundness. "We have done massive psychology tests on them. The major question was: Can they go back to their previous life if they leave the villa? In the case of Natasia, there were no hurdles. But she remains the one who is responsible for the upbringing of her kids."

Further controversy was caused by the eye-catching Eveline, who was an English teacher in the Christian community of Urk. Without much ado she left her class, just back from holidays, to enter the gilded cage. "She did not even say goodbye to her pupils, who are in their final examination year," her former headmaster said. Eveline better hope she wins the cash prize because she has lost her job.

The storm of publicity surrounding the Talpa program has not resulted in high ratings. Since its October bow, the show has lost nearly 66% of its original 1 million viewers. This may indicate that the Dutch are no longer impressed by taboo-breaking programs.

Another show raising eyebrows is "Spuiten en Slikken" (Shooting and Swallowing), on which every sexual persuasion can be found. It broadcasts on the youth-oriented pubcaster BNN, currently the most risque station in Holland. The program, which claims to have an educational purpose, caused a scandal even before its first episode. One of the presenters experiments onscreen with all kinds of soft and hard drugs. The program also features the exploration of sexual activities, including S&M, swingers clubs, squirting female orgasms and prostate milking (shown in full detail), leading to a flurry of political disapproval.

The Dutch have had their fair share of tasteless television in recent years. Considered by some as the nadir of gutter TV, "Patty's Fort," which aired in 2004 on RTL, saw minor Dutch celebs led by former pop singer Patty Brard gather for a colonic irrigation session in a health spa, with the scatological results shown to the audience.

The country has a long history of pushing the televisual envelope. In 1967, broadcaster VPRO caused a worldwide sensation by showing a nude model for the first time on national TV, shown reading a Christian newspaper. The resulting furor led to the cancellation of the avant-garde program, called "Hoepla," after only three episodes.

Death would be thought by some to be the ultimate taboo, but the Dutch were among the first to screen it. Twelve years ago, the religious broadcaster Ikon presented a documentary called "Death by Request," in which a euthanasia case was shown until the very end, making worldwide headlines.

Is there a limit to what is possible on Dutch television? Apparently so. Endemol last year tried to launch a sperm donor show in which a woman would select the father for her baby in front of the camera. The enormous public outcry about the project prompted Endemol to ax the program before it reached the airwaves.
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