DAFOTV V: Reality TV
Posted by turmarion
In the last installment, I discussed how excessive bandwidth leads to what I called “junk genres”; that is, genres of TV show that require as little overhead, planning, writing, etc. as possible. This is necessary because the amount of quality TV—or quality anything—is relatively fixed, whereas the 24/7 structure of availability that is now the norm has increased the amount of time to be filled. I enumerated some examples of these genres, to be expanded on later. This is what I want to do now, regarding what I consider one of the worst TV-related phenomena of the last decade or so: reality television.
To clarify what I mean in this discussion by the term “reality TV”, I refer (briefly) to my previous DAFOTV post:
I include things like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Biggest Loser, the recent shows Jamie Oliver has been doing, and the various shows about hoarders, home makeovers, bridesmaids, etc. on TLC, Discovery, and such under the rubric of “reality TV”. I even include Dick Clark’s old Bloopers shows and America’s Funniest Home Videos. They may not all purport to be documentaries (as An American Family did) or have an explicit game-show aspect (as Survivor does), but the basic principle of just letting the camera roll before “real people” is essentially the same. Also, I realize that it’s not all “real”–there’s jimmying and manipulating—but it’s still easier and cheaper than writing an actual drama or researching a documentary.
So what’s the problem with reality TV?
Some arguments are obvious–it’s not really “real”, it’s exploitative, it’s TV on the cheap, it appeals to base instincts, etc. I agree with all of this, and especially with the exploitation and base instinct arguments. I agree with the argument that it is exploitative, but I want to be more specific in this regard. In short, I want to view two aspects of the exploitative nature of reality TV: one, its tendency to turn the private and intimate into the public and crass; and two, its appeal to the lowest aspect of our collective psyche.
In this age of Facebook, government surveillance of its own citizens excused by the infinite War on Terror, and phone cameras everywhere, I may have a very old-fashioned notion of privacy. Still, to me, there are certain things–one’s love life, one’s family, one’s actions in one’s own home–that should be sacrosanct and inviolate, even by oneself. It is degrading and debasing to steal personal information about others and air it publicly; but it’s exponentially worse to air it oneself. I see people going on these shows–for example the latest such excrescence, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo–and I cringe at the absolute lack of boundaries or shame that people have in exposing not only their own private lives, but those of their loved ones and even children. One can only speculate what the effect will be on the poor kids like this one–or like the Gosselins, for that matter–when they grow up.
I’m not saying, by the way, that the right to privacy is infinite–running a meth lab or spousal abuse are certainly worthy of intervention–but it’s a pretty high bar.
Second, it bothers me that such crassness, shamelessness, and juvenile material is so popular. Some studies suggest that people enjoy reality TV because seeing people who are worse off than themselves makes them feel better about themselves. By the same token, it decreases feelings of empathy. To be blunt, it’s the same base emotion whereby people stare at a car wreck or used to go to carnival freak shows. Not humanity at its best.
Of course, it may be that we live in an already coarse and unforgiving age, and we just get the television we deserve. That is depressingly possible. Still, the popularity of reality TV, in my mind, is just one more instance not only of the debased state of public entertainment and discourse in our society, but of the exhaustion of creativity in pop culture in general. That’s a broader topic that I’ll be visiting soon.
Update: From here is one of the best things I’ve read about the perverse appeal of reality TV:
The resemblance between reality television competitions and the corporate workplace was evident even before “The Apprentice” came along. Perhaps one reason this genre of TV has proven so enduring is how readily it speaks to the little dramas of office politics: the series of seemingly meaningless tasks; the superficial praise of teamwork papering over the constant drumbeat of reminders that you are competing against each other; the canned pep talks and two-bit psychologizing; the back-biting, double-dealing, gossip and feuds; the encouragement to blame yourself for failing to succeed in a rigged system and, finally, the nagging awareness that even when you “win,” someone else will be making most of the money.