June 12, 2001 11:00 pm

Shows should reward

more than 1 contestant

Fairness seems to have taken a back seat to exploitation in the latest wave of television shows on the networks.

TV producers have settled for a new winner-takes-all approach on some of the new voyeur-style shows. Six contestants were lined up at the beginning of the new NBC show, Fear Factor, Monday, all hoping to win the $50,000 prize.

Only one contestant would win the money, according to the rules. The others would go home with hardly anything more than some brief exposure on national television. Is that a fair way to treat people who during the show were drug in the mud by a team of horses, assaulted by a pack of rats and forced to crawl out of the window of a car suspended 150 feet above a lake?

The winner of Fear Factor smiled all the way to his bill collectors, but what about the others? Couldnt the four finalists receive smaller prizes of $20,000, $10,000, $5,000 or $1,000 just for competing?

Another new show on NBC, Weakest Link, involves 10 contestants answering questions in rapid-fire succession. With every round, one contestant the supposed weakest link is eliminated by the others, until eventually only two remain. And then, after a series of five questions, the winning contestant on the NBC show Monday night walked away with $83,500. The runner-up got zip, zero, nada. Make that nothing.

Why do people expose themselves to potential humiliation and a small chance for financial award? One man on Fear Factor walked away from Mondays competition after admitting that rats give him the willies. And why do the new shows feel there should only be one winner? Is it a way to control the shows budget?

Television's classic game shows, like Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, typically provide prizes to more than one contestant.

But not on these new shows. Fortunately, life itself is not so dog-eat-dog as what is portrayed on Weakest Link, Fear Factor, or the hit series, Survivor, where the person who comes out at the top of the heap after several weeks of deprivation wins $1 million.

Producers of some of the new shows should wise up and sprinkle some cash in the direction of more contestants. Programs that give prizes to only one winner are unkind and exploitive. Viewers might grow tired of these shows and stop watching.

Share your views

Something bugging you? Got a comment about some aspect of community life that youd like to share? Write it down and send it to The Observer. The newspaper encourages reader input on the opinion page through letters and guest columns.

Please write.