Before appearing on Fox's popular The Moment of Truth (Tuesdays, 8/7c), contestants are asked 50 increasingly personal questions while hooked to a polygraph machine. Then, on camera, they field the same questions while hooked to the lie detector, but this time with loved ones sitting just a few feet away—and a viewing audience of more than 10 million. The more questions they truthfully answer, the more money they win—up to $500,000.

One man, with his spouse sitting in the front row, was asked, "Are you sexually attracted to your wife's sisters?" (He said yes.) A woman, with her mother in the audience, was asked, "Do you want to look like your mom when you are her age?" (She said no.) It gets uncomfortable. Each family is allowed to skip one question if they can't bear to hear the answer.

In one episode, a woman in the hot seat was asked by an ex-boyfriend, "Would you leave your husband for me?" After a few tense seconds, the woman's sister slapped the pass button. The audience let out a chorus of scathing boos. They wanted to know.

I recalled the bloodthirsty crowds in Gladiator, who jeered fighters who would not kill. Like them, this TV audience wanted entertainment, no matter the cost. The difference? Now we want emotional carnage. Perhaps this is a byproduct of our instant, total-access culture. We want to know what Britney Spears is doing right now. We want to know a stranger's dirty laundry. This voyeurism, or "information porn," feels dirty and thrilling. As one Fox exec said of the show, "By the time a participant is done, you know all about them." But should we?

There's a fascinating sociological undercurrent here. What drives us? Contestants know what questions are coming, but they press on—for the money. ...

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June 2008

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