Shocking criminals, animals, volcanoes, and more made for plenty of network specials in 1997

Quick: name ’97’s hottest TV shows. If you said ER and Seinfeld, you’re only half right. Did you forget the one with the wolf that turns a 4-year-old into a chew toy? Or the bitter employee who relieves himself in his boss’ coffee? Or the fugitive tank that rolls over cars on a freeway?

Indeed, it was pugnacious programming like When Animals Attack, Busted on the Job!, and World’s Scariest Police Chases that earned the mauling lion’s share of attention this year. Fox’s sensational shows proved effective counterprogramming (Breaking the Magician’s Code was Fox’s highest-rated special ever). They also led a mini-renaissance of reality TV, which first went hardcore with Fox’s 10-seasons-old Cops: ABC aired World’s Deadliest Volcanoes; CBS showcased World’s Most Dangerous Animals 3; and NBC had Dateline, with its pieces on animal attacks and deadly volcanoes. ”What’s compelling about these shows,” says Fox senior VP Mike Darnell, who oversees World’s Deadliest Swarms and others, ”is that they touch a primal emotion, such as fear or embarrassment.”

They also touched off a bit of controversy: Was it ”distinctive programming,” to quote Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth, or just exploitative trash? Not surprisingly, other networks have tried to distance themselves from Fox. ”We don’t want to put stuff like When Lions Roar and Eat Cops in Tornadoes on the air,” quipped NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield. Fox even yanked Prisoners Out of Control because Roth felt the content was ”too rough.”

The reality rage did offer a softer side. Taking a cue from America’s Funniest Home Videos, Fox created its World’s Funniest… franchise. CBS aired Kids Say the Darndest Things, while NBC had more Bloopers. And ABC revamped AFHV with hip new host Daisy Fuentes.

So why did prime time get real in ’97? ”It breaks out of the clutter of the 217-channel universe,” says NBC exec VP Lindy DeKoven. Adds Fox’s Darnell: ”We live in a day and age when everybody’s got a camera. All these shows are sort of voyeuristic.” Jeez, what’s next: World’s Scariest Pamela and Tommy Lee Home Videos?