Reality TV: More Mirror Than Window

By Breyer, Richard | The World and I, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Reality TV: More Mirror Than Window


Breyer, Richard, The World and I


Does the current bumper crop of reality TV shows celebrate the improvisational abilities of the participants or their public humiliation.

Click on to any Internet search engine (Google, Ask Jeeves), type in the words reality television, and you'll find a thousand Web sites and articles about this subject. Reality television is big. It's seen by millions and discussed, critiqued, chatted about, and hyped by hundreds of thousands. Some critics are convinced that Big Brother, Survivor, and Road Rules represent a very negative trend by exposing contestants' private lives; some even see parallels with pornography. "The underlying themes are themes of humiliation and degradation. And it's part of a general trend in our culture towards making the private public," says Frank Farley, past president of the American Psychological Association. Others see the genre as an example of American democracy at its best. You can become an American idol or a survivor with your own talk show through hard work and discipline, no matter where you grew up or who you are.

My view is that there is something worrisome when viewers, especially young ones, are more involved with people they see on television than with their neighbors or families. And reality TV shows seem to draw viewers into the worlds of their casts more effectively than do sitcoms, detective shows, and other series.

From the networks' point of view, this is a good thing. In fact, for the last four summers, reality TV brought sunshine into the lives of network executives. In August 2000, CBS' Survivor held audiences of, on average, twenty-eight million. The next year NBC had its moment in the sun with its breakout reality show, Fear Factor. And in 2002 Fox won the summer sweeps with American Idol. This past summer ABC was the winner with its popular For Love or Money.

Additionally, the genre has remained profitable as the weather cools. Most of CBS' highest-rated shows are in the reality TV camp--The Amazing Races; Big Brother series; and Survivor (Borneo, Australia, Africa, Marquesas, Thailand, the Amazon, twice, and the Pearl Islands). But CBS isn't alone. Joe Millionaire and American Idol have earned big bucks and ratings for Fox; The Real World, Road Rules, and The Osbournes help pay the bills at MTV.

But as happens so often, the waters have been overfished. Notable examples of short-lived programs are Fox's When Good Pets Go Bad, World's Scariest Police Chases, and World's Most Shocking Moments Caught on Tape. Fox also got burned when the millionaire on Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? was not the appealing dude initially represented on the show but turned out to be the subject of a restraining order for threatening his fiancee.

Even with these few failures, reality TV is still very popular. This shouldn't be a big surprise. Reality and television have been partners since the days when rabbit ears first appeared on the horizon. The medium was and is our window on the world. Through it we see real wars and inaugurations; we're part of real talk, real games, and real sports.

However, with the exception of the quiz show descendant Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the programs that have put smiles on the faces of stockholders and network executives in the last three or four years are something new. The two closest relatives of the genre come from more innocent times: Candid Camera, which first appeared in 1948, and America's Funniest Home Videos, the still-popular series that came on the air in the early 1990s. On Candid Camera, audiences were there when an unsuspecting diner discovered a goldfish in her soup; on America's Funniest Home Videos, we witnessed Dad falling off the dock as he backed up to have his picture taken. With them, we heard the good news, "You're on Candid Camera," or "You've won a thousand dollars and a chance to compete for the big money next week." These two sentences made it okay to be voyeurs and to laugh at these unfortunates because they transformed two private, mildly embarrassing moments (and many others like them) into television. …

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