The shallowness of reality TV

How serving up trash on national broadcast television tells us where TV owners’ priorities really are- and it’s not with us.

By Peter Rosengren


Forgive me if what follows seems unduly skeptical. But when a close friend rang me last night and told me his seven year-old son was watching big Brother, I felt a pang of regret for that boy that was hard to express.
Whoever thought it all up was on a winner. Take the following well-known program. Get a bunch of guys, introduce them to a beautiful transsexual, without letting on that ‘she’ is really a ‘he.’ Film all their advances to ‘her,’ one by one, the more titillating the better. Then reveal it all at the end of the series. Build up towards the big revelation episode by episode.
There’s Something About Miriam, as the show aired locally on Channel 10 was called, was a hit. No doubt about it.

Or let’s see… something different again? How about we go out and get some ‘white trash’ types; people at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale. Not necessarily too bright. But it helps if they’re plain; ugly doesn’t hurt, either. Offer them something they’re vulnerable to, especially the women – plastic surgery worth tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars. Play on their belief that undertaking potentially life-threatening surgery will improve their happiness and self-esteem. Take them away from their families for months until all the (visible) scars are healed. Then play out the syrupy moment of revelation for all it’s worth.
The list goes on. Welcome to reality TV. Welcome to the new coliseum. Welcome to television’s latest attempt to make money. Out of us, our families, our children.
Here’s who reality television is really all about. The growth sector in broadcast television in the last couple of years is aimed at one person and one person only. You. Your family. Anyone in the house.

Reality TV, as it’s being called, really depends on two things: money and viewers.
Money is the motive. In fact, it’s the only motive. And you are the way to make sure broadcast television stations get more of it. In fact, it’s mainly what they care about.
The growth in American reality TV has also generated clones everywhere, carefully-premised situations contrived and populated with willing (we guess) audience members prepared to do almost anything they can to win the pot at the end of the show. Why? Money, money, money.

The success of such programs relies on the natural inquisitiveness of our audiences. It relies on that basic impulse most of us have to know what’s going on that we’re not usually allowed to see. Put other people’s lives, intimate parts and all, on display on free-to-air television and it’s a safe bet audiences will be unable to resist tuning in. Ratings soar. Advertisers pay to get into THAT timeslot. Watch the cash roll in. And there’s more. Get the viewers to participate by voting or registering opinions or the like by making charged calls. There- even more money. Oodles of it. Paid for by the viewers. And has anyone ever revealed how much money is made from this aspect of involvement alone?

If we want to analyse whether there’s a problem here we can generally count the TV station decision-makers and their corporate officially well and truly out. Heard any reservations from them about this trend lately? For them, there is relatively little question, if any, as to whether this sort of programming is doing anyone good. In fact, it’s almost no consideration at all, one would suspect, given the nature of what they are broadcasting in order to bump up ratings and improve profit margins.
And that’s part of the problem that thoughtful people are increasingly finding troubling, even disturbing. Reality TV is doing nobody any good. In fact, it invites the question: is it doing any harm?
Let’s be frank. What we are talking about here is, with rare exceptions, LCD TV: Lowest Common Denominator television. Really it goes further than that. Perhaps a better way we to put it is ‘How-much-can-we-get-away-with-TV?” Concern for an audience appears not to be a factor taken into account when calculating a show’s potential to make money. Concern for a ‘participant’ appears to be almost non-existent.

The formula for reality tv’s success is simple, often brutal and de-humanising. It’s de-humanising because usually it rests upon using people, especially their vulnerabilities or their freakishness (a la the Osbornes), to provide ‘entertainment.’ It depends on using its subjects. And, to maximise the take there’s a big motive for producers to hit the lowest common denominator button, push the moral and situational envelope to the ‘max’, so they get the biggest audience. Get down and dirty generally seems to be the golden rule of reality television. How? Easy: tits, bums, family feuds, innuendoes, angst between friends, plotting, conniving, betrayal of relationships, contrived sexual liaisons.

Reality tv is therefore far less real than it makes itself out to be. It variously gives people motives to be dishonest, deceitful, nasty, tasteless, bitchy or ruthless to each other. It extracts the maximum impact out of the human equivalents of putting lab rats in a glass box and stimulating them into performing for our enjoyment.
Only we don’t enjoy it. We goggle away, fascinated at seeing private moments broadcast publicly, gripped by the drama of the personality clashes, waiting breathlessly for the next development. So we really don’t enjoy it at all. We perve at it. We become the addicted peeping toms glued to our sets uncritically sucking in everything that’s offered. Using people in this way, one would think, is hardly a sound motive for creating a television program to be viewed by millions, especially the very young.

The absolutely fundamental principle, also to be found in the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors beginning their careers, ‘Do no harm’ is simply absent from reality tv which doesn’t usually have to deal with the consequences. They are too remote, too in-the-past. When There’s Something About Miriam turned into a smash success for Channel 10 locally it was partly because of the controversy (golden rule number 2: any controversy is great publicity). The randy participants found out they’d been had. The tables were turned. Then they sued. Maybe the show’s originators hadn’t planned it. But maybe they had. The news, released early on in the series helped push the magic ratings through the roof. The money flowed in to television situations broadcasting it, courtesy of advertisers scrambling to take advantage of the amorally novel subjects and the controversy.

The two things reality tv lacks above all others are goodness – and reality. It usually relies on exploiting nastiness and tastelessness, goodness tends to be marginalised.
This trash served up by our broadcasters is only that and nothing more. I wonder if they care?
There is no fidelity in it. There is no nobility in it. There is no educational value in it. There is nothing uplifting, nothing that leaves us feeling happier, more determined to change our own little corner of the world for the better. We don’t come away more generous, say, to the starving in Africa or the poor in our midst.
Would the producers of Big Brother donate the same amount of prize money and revenue from charged calls to the starving in Darfur? I won’t tell you what I think the answer to that is.

Seen in its wider context, for ‘reality’ like this so prosper it helps enormously if people are convinced or lulled into believing that none of this matters or is immoral, that morality is nothing more than doing what you like as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.
Should we be fooled? Can we afford to be? This kind of viewing is called moral relativism, the view that morality is different from group to group, society to society, that there is no such thing as right or wrong, standards of decency that are universal.
A society that embraces moral relativism, much less broadcasts it into homes, very quickly loses the ability to defend any kind of absolute value at all. And, I sometimes wonder, what would the consequences of this be?
Counter-cultural parents and teenagers should start a TV revolution.

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One thought on “The shallowness of reality TV

  1. Lee says:

    So I suppose you’re not looking forward to the next Big Brother then? :P

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