Reality TV gains ratings in 1998 -- ''World's Scariest Police Chases 4'' and ''Busted on the Job III'' are two of the shows highlighting real life

By David Hochman
Updated December 25, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The agoraphobic woman with the 303-pound tumor is ready for her close-up. That secretary who goes wee-wee on her boss’ chair is probably itching for a development deal at Fox. Pro wrestlers who aren’t winning gubernatorial elections are unlocking the secrets of their sleeper holds in prime time. And don’t even ask what the going rate is for some lapel-cam footage of a good pet going bad.

Reality, at its shark-biting, trooper-chasing, Guinness-record-smashing best, looked more entertaining than ever this year. And with video cameras pointing out at us from what seems like every peephole, helicopter pontoon, and police-car dashboard in America, the sloppy soup of everyday life suddenly became the tastiest dish on the pop-culture menu. Some of the statistics were shocking enough to cause a 14-car pileup worthy of Surviving the Moment of Impact 2.

When Fox ran World’s Scariest Police Chases 4 last winter, it beat everything else in its time slot among adults 18 to 49, including the Olympics. Another Fox special, Busted on the Job III — showcasing blurry surveillance-cam images of sneeze-happy kitchen workers and secretaries who photocopy their naked butts — was that network’s highest-rated Thursday-night special ever. And Fox isn’t the only network getting high on reality. Last year ABC ran I Survived a Disaster and The World’s Most Dangerous Volcanoes! NBC’s Dateline features a regular ”Survivor Story” segment. When 60 Minutes aired videotape this fall of one of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s mercy killings, the program had its highest ratings since March (to say nothing of the newspaper editorials it prompted). Even The Learning Channel is getting all pumped up with The Adrenaline Rush Hour, a reality-based programming block that airs six nights a week.

”These shows do what TV’s supposed to do,” says Mike Darnell, Fox’s executive vice president of specials and alternative programming. ”They shock, stir up fear, give people a rush. They make people say, ‘Oh, my God! I’m glad that’s not me.”’

The scary thing is, some people actually want it to be them. Jennifer Ringley, the 22-year-old woman who runs the JenniCAM website, lets 500,000 people a day watch her run around her Washington, D.C., apartment in her underwear via a camera mounted on her PC. And while watching Jenni clip her toenails might not have quite the dramatic impact of The Truman Show — another sign of 1998’s obsession with reality — the JenniCAM idea had enough kick to make it into prime time. When Diagnosis Murder ran an episode about a Jenni-like woman who’s murdered in front of her logged-on fans, Ringley was cast as their ”Jenni.” (How’s that for breaking the fourth wall?)

It all makes for a strange, unexpected trend in modern living: The more high-tech we get, and the more we retreat into our own cubicles, the more time we seem to spend watching normal people do regular things. The question is, Why? ”Real people are always more interesting than made-up lives,” says media critic Todd Gitlin. Great! What’s next? (Your name here) Weekly?