The story of a reality show contestant who suffered on live feeds and entertained millions

This American Life’s episode this weekend was about “Human Spectacle,” and although the intros drew connections to reality television, there was only one story about reality TV–and it was horrifying.

It’s the story of a comedian who starred in a 1998 Japanese reality show, Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, which left him alone in a room, naked and with no outside contact or supplies. He had to subsist only on what he won via sweepstakes, and couldn’t leave until he’d won about $10,000 worth of prizes. The show also broadcast a live feed to millions of viewers, edited to turn his suffering into hilarious comedy.

The year Nasubi spent doing that, which included eating dog food, pales in comparison to what producers did next. Listen to the story before reading on.

The incredible part was that he essentially admits he wasn’t trapped or held hostage; he could have left at any time and the door was unlocked. He also agreed to film what was basically a second season. On some level, at least at first, he allowed himself to be treated this way. Sadistic? Masochistic? Both? It’s a fascinating and horrifying story.

The story’s producer and narrator, Stephanie Foo, also talks to the show’s producer, who compares himself to a coach who pushed a player hard during practice, and talks about how the show revealed a lot about humanity. That may be true, but at what cost?

discuss this story