J. M. Pressley
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Reality Bites

Reality has gone hand in hand with television programming since the inception of television. Americans over the years have tuned into nightly news, documentaries, talk shows, game shows, variety shows, and many other forms of "unscripted" entertainment for their viewing pleasure. It's no coincidence that Meet the Press is the longest running show in television history at 57 years and counting. With the range of shows running from You Bet Your Life to the Tonight Show to Candid Camera, America has been hooked on reality shows for decades, one could argue.

This trend has never been more pronounced than it is now.

Talk shows of every conceivable ilk have largely replaced the afternoon soaps, news magazines have steadily encroached upon the prime-time programming schedule, and where game shows waned in popularity (until the arguable renaissance of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?), they were replaced by self-proclaimed "reality programming." I am not writing to debate whether or not society would be improved by turning off the television; the medium shouldn't be reduced to such simplistic quibbling over its relative worth. Neither am I writing to debate whether the prevalence of 24-hour news has reduced our collective capability to take the longer view of events; that's an essay in its own right. I am, however, writing to put reality shows into a proper perspective; the viewing public deserves better television programming than what it's getting.

Reality: A Retrospective

In 1948, Allen Funt created Candid Camera, a show designed to "catch people in the act of being themselves." This is something of a genesis for what will become a genre unto itself. One could trace the roots of shows such as Real People and America's Funniest Home Videos directly to the Candid Camera philosophy. But these are presented against the backdrop of humor. It would take another milestone event—provided by PBS, no less—to set quite a different tone for reality as entertainment.

In 1973, PBS produced the seminal series, An American Family. The series drew 10 million viewers for its 12-episode run, which featured the Loud family; the camera captured a marriage on the rocks and an openly homosexual son. This was not, as one might expect at the time, viewed as humorous. Instead, the producers had made a cinema verité drama out of the life of the family—and thrown a cold dose of water on the conventional presentation of the middle class family on television.

Reality television then continued on a mostly harmless course for the next two decades. In 1989, however, the fledgling Fox network, in existence for only three years and strapped for market share (read: money), produced an on-the-cheap series entitled Cops. The premise was simple: a camera crew followed local police on patrol. The show is still running in its 15th season, and has often been the subject of much criticism regarding the view it presents (whether intentional or not) of the poor and minority communities, who are frequently the subjects on display. Fox augmented this type of programming with such notable TV gravitas as Totally Hidden Video and When Animals Attack. Incidentally, this is where I begin tracing the eventual backslide into the cultural abyss.

In 1992, the cultural icon MTV, not satisfied with merely ruining music, introduced American viewers to The Real World, which MTV describes in its own words as "a new genre of television with its fresh documentary/soap opera formula." The formula was to take seven multicultural hipsters, throw them together in a Soho apartment, and film them as they went about their business. It would take another two years, however, for The Real World to have a serious impact; the show, on location in San Francisco, featured a roommate (Pedro Zamora) living with AIDS, garnering a great deal of attention in the process. This, as near as I can tell, is the only positive contribution that The Real World has made to culture.

This brings us into the new millennium. Ushering in the new century was the CBS show Survivor, which began its run in the summer of 2000. Survivor was actually a form of game show, where the contestants were pitted against each other in team challenges while being whittled away, one by one, until only one contestant was left to claim the prize. The basic concept of pitting contestants against each other wasn't new; the idea of putting 16 people on an island for 39 days to live the game was. And due to the audience response, the hounds of reality TV had been unleashed.

Creative Bankruptcy

As of 2004, the viewing public has been under assault for the past four years from a network combination of greed, pandering, and herd mentality. There are well over 100 reality programs from which to choose, with ideas getting more and more banal by the week. The networks like the profit to be had from the shows, which don't have the high production overhead of actors, writers, and other traditional show expenses. The cost, in turn, makes for a type of disposable entertainment; not only do the networks reduce their financial investment in the programming, they reduce their creative investment as well. As long as the show does not provoke a sponsor boycott, and as long as the ratings show some sort of life, the network can afford to lower the bar on quality. And finally, the explosion in reality programming betrays a couple of things about network programmers: they are creatively lazy, and they will ride a ratings horse until it dies.

If that seems a harsh assessment of the creative fortitude of network executives, then look at the programming schedule. How many shows involve a bachelor/bachelorette picking from a pool of prospective mates? How many shows involve a group of people with nothing in common thrust together? How many shows involve voting (either cast or audience) on who stays and who goes? And, as the originality has grown as thin as the premises, networks are not even pretending to come up with their own ideas anymore. NBC creates The Contender, Fox counters with The Next Great Champ; ABC plans to air Wife Swap, Fox announces Trading Spouses.

In those instances where the networks aren't stealing ideas from each other, then they are raiding their own larder, so to speak. The cable networks are guilty of this twicefold; first, networks such as A&E abandon their original mission of culture to borrow from the reality bank, then they consistently produce show after show on the same theme. Discovery is one of the worst offenders, in my eyes, about which I've already written (see "When Good Channels Go Bad" on this site), with no less than four series involving garages, tattoos, and arc welders. It is now a race to see which network can grab the greatest market share of lowbrow.

Lowering the Bar

If the best that can be said about reality programming is that it is increasingly unoriginal, the worst is that the networks are more consistently plumbing the dregs of taste in their attempts to stand out from the crowd. Admittedly, taste is a highly subjective thing, and to put taste into perspective, I happen to enjoy—among many finer movies—Smokey and the Bandit, The Pirate Movie, and Weekend at Bernie's. I'm confessing this so that hopefully any accusations of intellectual elitism can stop right now. And I have no problem with controversy; quite the contrary, I have a healthy respect for it—when it isn't sold cheap.

When the boundaries get pushed past a certain line, however, for no better motivation than ratings, I do have a problem with it. The networks, in my view, jumped the shark on shock value far too quickly (one can primarily thank Fox for that). The shows at their worst prey upon their subjects. I do not see the value, for instance, in watching a beauty pageant featuring contestants competing for self-esteem via plastic surgery (The Swan). Neither am I very interested in which tramp out of a bevy of gold-diggers wants to marry a millionaire (Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire). And I am outraged by suggestions of a reality show involving missing children (Recovery), or Court TV's abominable series, Confessions (featuring the videotaped confessions of convicted felons, the show aired all of two episodes in September 2000 before being yanked).

The bottom line is that reality TV has become so prevalent so fast that the line between tasteful and crass had barely enough time to be established before being crossed. In the process, the rush to get on the reality bandwagon has resulted in quite a few shows that make me question what our culture has come down to—or what lowest common denominator the networks are striving to reach.

Voyeurism, Exploitation, and Morality

One problem with the nature of reality programming is that it is often difficult to determine whether the entertainment in question is dramatic or voyeuristic in its entertainment value. Whereas a person could get arrested for peering through a window into a person's living room and eavesdropping, the camera ostensibly allows us to be electronic peeping Toms without running that risk. Of course, the conceit of reality programming is deceptive; if the scenario and the participants are selected specifically to generate conflict, then it is highly arguable whether or not the camera is capturing reality. The difference is more than semantic. It's the difference between driving along a highway and discovering a car wreck, and driving along a highway upon which someone intentionally wrecked a car to grab your attention. Either way, there's going to be some rubbernecking happening, but in the latter case, both the victims and the audience have been manipulated.

Exploitation is the fire to manipulation's smoke where reality TV is concerned. It ranges from the unintentional to the blatant, depending upon the show's theme and subject matter. The producers and network executives exploit the participants for their gain, the participants readily exploit the medium for their personal gain, and the two work in concert to exploit the viewing audience into ultimately making those gains possible. As Marxist as I realize that all sounds, if you substitute "audience" for "labor," it makes a great deal of sense. Marxist digressions aside, reality in itself is not enough of a hook for even the most non-discerning of viewers; the executives churning out these ideas know that, and their business is to present a dramatic reality that will keep the audience coming back. That hook is either comic, in which the participants are exploited for their humorous traits (e.g., The Osbournes) or dramatic, in which the participants are exploited for the possibility of conflict (e.g., People's Court). Like it or not, if you're going to stir real people up (such as the average Jerry Springer episode), it does bring up a question of morality on some level.

Let me begin by saying that it would be wrong to state flatly that reality programming is immoral. Morality, after all, is a pretty fluid concept (as reality TV itself so aptly and ironically illustrates). And those who would defend reality programming against such charges have a pretty good argument on their side, at least on the surface. Certainly the failings of human nature so often demonstrated on these shows have been demonstrated since, well, Genesis Chapter 3 of the Bible (the serpent's entrance, for those who don't want to look it up). Reality TV is only the mirror, the defenders say; it is only capturing the "bad" behavior, not creating it. To that I say, both the encouragement and exploitation of ethically questionable behavior serve as a midwife; they may not be giving birth, but they're sure as hell helping the baby get born. The question remains: are reality shows inherently immoral? No, of course not. Is rewarding and even celebrating ethically challenged behavior immoral? Maybe not, but I don't feel much better for having seen it.

I can see the next question coming: what about the prevalence of violence, sex, profanity, and ethically questionable behavior in fiction? I realize that reality programming did not invent the public display of "bad" behavior, nor has it cornered the market on portraying such behavior for entertainment purposes. There are qualities of fiction that make the portrayal more palatable, whether or not one thinks that the behavior should be portrayed in the first place. First, it's fiction; there is an escapist level of removal in viewing people treating each other cruelly when they are characters contrasted to actual people. Watching someone getting decapitated in a horror film is a completely different experience than watching a videotape of a public beheading. Second, because it is fiction, the writer's choice of viewpoint and theme can place the behavior into a particular context. Such introspection is often lacking in reality shows; it is easier to be outrageous than to be contemplative. By focusing on greed, suffering, and self-absorption, reality programming will only continue its shock-over-substance approach to entertainment. The wasteland will at last be realized.

Newton Revisited

Reality programming is another manifestation of Newton Minow's "vast wasteland," exacerbated by the networks' insatiable appetite for ratings, advertising dollars, and content on the cheap. The standard that has been established in the rise of reality programming has constantly been to up the ante on cheap thrills. Minow had it right; the American people own the air. Conversely, if the viewing public ignores that fundamental tenet and doesn't demand better programming, then it doesn't deserve better programming. And in that vacuum, in that abdication of ownership, the networks will continue to churn out programming—whether based in reality or not—which panders rather than enriches. The phenomenon of reality television is still relatively new; it is premature to forecast what the ultimate effect on culture will be. The trend, however, seems to indicate a cumulative, detrimental effect, like aerosols eroding the ozone layer.

Demand better, deserve better. Don't settle for exploitation and water cooler discussion material. Not everything has to be highbrow; indeed, not everything would be, even if the networks tried that approach. But not everything has to be lowbrow, either, and it would be refreshing if entertainment was lowbrow by accident for a change instead of by design. It's taken humanity centuries to progress from viewing public executions as a legitimate source of entertainment; I'd hate to think that we're only a few ethical steps away from seeing The Running Man as a reality.

If we as a society and culture aren't any better than that, then maybe we should just turn the damn thing off.

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