Hitting the Hard Stuff on the Small Screen

From the ex-coeds on High School Reunion to just about everyone on Jimmy Kimmel's show, people on TV seem to be hitting the bottle like frat brothers at a homecoming game.

"In an increasing number of instances, alcohol seems to be used to loosen people's inhibitions," said Adam Buckman, TV writer for the New York Post.

The latest incident came during Sunday's post-Super Bowl premiere of Kimmel's talk show, when actor George Clooney passed around a bottle of vodka and an over-baked audience member had to leave after vomiting during a commercial break.

Whether his vodka sipping played a factor in Snoop Dogg's repeatedly flipping off the camera during the show — the most widely reported incident from the night — is not known.

But beer goggles (or in this case, wine goggles) may have been what opened the way for Joe Millionaire's Evan Marriott and Sarah Kozer — who on Thursday was revealed to be a bondage film star — to slip off into the woods for a little private slurping and gulping after their winery tour.

Over on The Bachelorette, meanwhile, Trista Rehn was on a date with some of her many suitors when the fellas left behind started boozing it up at an L.A. bachelor pad. One poor sot who had too much ended up passed out in bed — and was then carried out in the front yard, courtesy of a few pranksters in the group.

It's probably no surprise regular Janes and Joes who aren't used to being in front of the camera might have a pop, thinking it will calm their nerves.

"With the advent of reality TV, which put ordinary people in extraordinary, and often embarrassing situations, alcohol is used … to get them to be increasingly flamboyant," Buckman said.

"When you add a camera, people act more stilted. It's a natural consequence of being observed," added Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Using alcohol is an attempt to cancel out the camera."

On programs like Jay Leno's Tonight Show or David Letterman's Late Show, which feature celebrities used to the limelight, drinking on air has been mostly taboo, though guests are regularly offered booze backstage on the Tonight Show. Letterman's people won't offer alcohol, but will get something if it's requested.

That's what happened last June when comedian Tom Green got staggeringly — and deliberately — drunk by chugging Jagermeister on the Tonight Show. It was an experiment that spiraled out of control as Green began to mumble incoherently, spilled his drink on actress Rosario Dawson, and later admitted to vomiting in his limo after the show.

Alcohol use on network programs is more self-regulated.

"The FCC does not have rules regarding content on TV except for indecency and obscenity rules," said Michelle Russo, spokesperson for the Federal Communication Commission.

Alcohol advertising on television is more strictly regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. There are no ads for hard alcohol on network TV, but there are no actual laws restricting them, according to FTC spokesperson Cathy MacFarlane. "They have to be truthful and substantiated like all other ads," she said, noting the ban "is voluntary."

The reaction to all this raucous programming has been mixed.

"It seems like the increase in alcohol use in TV goes hand-in-hand with an increase of profanity and the coarsening of TV," said Buckman. "It's too bad TV can't help itself from getting sleazier and sleazier."

But Felling said the incidents, which show people with obviously impaired judgment, actually send an important message to viewers.

"It's a healthy evolution of alcohol's image on TV — it's more realistic," he said. "Gone are the perceptions that you can sit in a bar all day and be lucid," like on programs such as Cheers.

Alcohol was mentioned in 77 percent of all top sitcoms and dramas, according to a study sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2000. But drinking on fictional programs is different from the latest phenomenon, which shows real people getting drunk.

And Felling says that could be a good thing.

"Rather than seeing George Clooney stay 100 percent coherent with a glass in his hand on film, I'd like to see him acting a bit oafish," Felling added. "I think it sends a good message, particularly to under-aged kids who think you can hold it all night and be fine."