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New reality show 'Littlest Groom' raises concerns about exploitation

LOS ANGELES -- Just as "The Station Agent" is painting movie screens with an emotionally rich story about a dwarf, Fox is escorting "The Littlest Groom" down the reality-TV aisle.

Is the dating show, about a 4-foot-5 man wooing both small and average-size women, a case of one step forward, two steps back?

No, said Glen Foster, the 23-year-old Philadelphia bachelor who's featured in the two-part special premiering tonight. (Locally, it airs on Channel 25 at 8 p.m.)

No, said Rick Schotz, the show's creator, whose other reality TV productions include "Man Vs. Beast" and "Boot Camp." We'll see, said the Little People of America, an 8,000-member organization that provides support and information to the short-statured.

"We're mildly concerned," said Dan Okenfuss, a spokesman for the group. "But we remain neutral. We hope we can take [the producers] at their word and there is nothing exploitive or objectionable in relationship to the contestants."

The show's goal is an entertaining variation on the matchmaking genre and not a punch line, Schotz said. "We didn't make a joke out of it. We didn't go, `Ha, ha, you're short, this is a tall world.' "

In the first hour, Foster is presented with 12 women, all of them little people, and goes through reality TV's freeze-dried version of courtship. A Malibu mansion is base camp; Dani Behr ("Boy Meets Boy") is the host.

After eliminations, women of average height join the fray.

"Ultimately, he will have to make a final decision . . . Will Glen decide that `good things come in small packages'? Or that `opposites attract'?" Fox teases in its program description.

While there will be no cash prize for the happy couple, they'll have each other, along with an all-expenses-paid vacation to get to know each other better.

"It's a twist, because [the reality genre] is by its nature competitive," Schotz said. "But it's not out of the realm of the world that they work in and play in. Average-sized women play a role in their lives."

Foster, who has dated both short and tall women, said he felt entirely comfortable with the project and his treatment.

"I did not feel exploited whatsoever. We were put in the best light we could possibly be in," he said. The program offers "a chance to look through the eyes of a little person and see what it's like."

Little People of America was among those contacted by the producers of "The Littlest Groom" for pointers.

"They spoke with us, told us the premise, asked questions on how little people prefer to be treated and prefer to be identified," Okenfuss said.

The group has no objections to the show's concept or its inclusion of women of all sizes in the dating pool, he said. He brushed away any possible annoyance from the condescending title.

"Believe me, we've heard every single pun out there dealing with stature," Okenfuss said.

Members, however, were expressing skepticism about the show itself, which was in post-production the week before it aired. Preview copies were unavailable.

"Fox has a reputation of airing some programs that push the edge, so we remain cautious about how the show will be executed," Okenfuss said. He and others in the group planned to watch it.

Schotz's inspiration came from a segment of "Man Vs. Beast" in which 40 little people were pitted against an elephant in a jetliner-pulling contest. (A sequel, "Man Vs. Beast 2," airs Feb. 20 on Fox).

During production, he said, "Everyone was obsessed with the little people, not staring and gawking but hanging with them. . . . You find there's some very cool people."

In "Man Vs. Beast," the elephant won. Will little people be winners with "The Littlest Bachelor"?

"The show's compelling. The groom, Glen, is unbelievable. He's a great, great guy," Schotz said. "I think you'll watch this one with a gigantic smile on your face. It's one where the producers didn't take the cheap shot."

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