Television is going to hell, or at least that’s what we’ve been relentlessly told ever since the advent of ‘reality’ television. What was once the realm of quirky experiments (such as MTV’s The Real World, which has run through 16 seasons now), is now the land of anything goes. Anything short of killing, raping, and pillaging has been explored in its confines, but yet we seem to be transfixed to it. Clearly if we showed no interest in it, then the experiment would’ve stayed a flash in the pan, but something must be there or else why bother. Am I right?
While The Real World might’ve sparked the interest in what reality television was back in 1992, it didn’t truly evolve into what it is today until the premier of Survivor in 2000. A British import, Survivor began the series of imported and homegrown reality shows that gave people a chance to peer into human behavior. Like a social experiment started for all the wrong reasons, Survivor gave viewers a glimpse into what motivates people: Are you playing a game for money, or are you trying to challenge yourself? In most all the cases that come up in these games, it almost always comes down to money and the fifteen minutes of fame factor. Everyone wants to be seen, heard, and sometimes respected. It’s the "look at me" element of our lives. Kids play sports, and other activities, for both personal leisure and the "Hey mom and dad, look what I can do." aspects. It gives the ego and self-confidence a boost. Reality television is the same thing, only the egos are bigger and the stakes more desirable.
But television these days is as much a game of greed as it is of "one-upsmanship." Each network is trying to find that hook to draw in viewers. As these shows are easy to produce and cost relatively little money to make, most of these shows offer little variety and are mainly causing a dumbing down effect on television viewers.
Take for example, The Simple Life, Growing Up Gotti, and The Princes of Malibu. Each of these shows is meant to rub it in our collective faces. Kids of wealthy parents (which automatically make them rich brats) do crazy things on television that producers concoct, so that they can either get more money that they don’t need or national exposure because they weren’t a big enough blip on the Hollywood radar to begin with. Paris Hilton is a prime example of this. But where has it taken her? She’s made one lousy album with a single barely played, she made a horror movie (House Of Wax) where the ad campaign touted her death, and she lost her friendship with castmate Nicole Richie. Smart move, Paris, considering your biggest hit is a sex tape.
Even better was the effect the Princes of Malibu had on the Foster family. The show lasted 11 days. David Foster received divorce papers from wife Linda Thompson shortly after its demise, and the family was torn asunder. The fighting on the show was real enough, and so was its breakup. Even so, people love watching tragedy unfold. It makes them feel better about their lives.
Then there are the copycats. If you think you’ve seen a show on one station that looked interesting, well, get ready because the other networks will have something similar up shortly thereafter (and in some cases before). Shows like The Contender on NBC are announced a couple of months ahead of their air date, but that didn’t stop FOX from rushing The Next Great Champ out the door and onto screens BEFORE Contender’s premier and AFTER its announcement. Not only that, but FOX seems to be the king on copying virtually any show that has a remote pulse (Wife Swap spawned Trading Spouses, Supernanny’birthed Nanny 911, etc.). As with the lead-off of this article, I’m surprised FOX hasn’t tried to send people to Hell in some kind of craft with a drill bit on the front, giving them a million dollars if they succeed in finding it. While FOX would probably cash in their families for a hit, I’d like to think there would be some point where they realize it’s not a working formula and come up with something original. Shoot, at least Hell’s Kitchen was mildly entertaining and slightly unique.
Next comes the live factor. Some of the biggest reality hits have been shows that have a structured live element to them. American Idol and Dancing With the Stars are two prime examples of our fascination with seeing people screw up. I know that watching Kelly Monaco’s dress mishap on Dancing… probably spiked the male viewership a few points considering it’s probably the second most watched wardrobe malfunction on live television.
It’s these unscripted moments that make us realize that the people on the screen are human and fallible. It’s comforting in a way. At least with American Idol you can laugh at and reassure yourself that you’re NOT the worst singer in the world. There’s always someone worse off than you are.
Is there a place that reality television hasn’t explored that can be seen as actually providing a service, instead of vapid entertainment? Well there is always room. Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days seems to be on that track, and The 1900 House series on PBS explored educational possibilities. Does it sell? Well that’s the question. If something educational can promote a financial gain for networks showing it, then be prepared for an onslaught of brain activity put to good use. Otherwise you’ll have to turn to PBS or cable for your educational reality fix.
In the end, we are neither beneficiaries of good television or of something of substance from reality television if it continues on the path laid down previously. Networks need to start finding their own niche with programming of value in the wake of reality programming’s eventual decline. Unfortunately we are the ones to suffer through it.
They don’t call it the boob tube for nothin’.