The Reality of Reality TV
Last week, veteran British broadcaster John Humphrys delivered a lecture in which he lambasted the reality TV phenomenon, referring to certain reality programs as 'mind-numbing, witless vulgarity.'
Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today program explained how he had not watched TV in five years. When asked to present the lecture he asked controllers from several TV channels to send him tapes of their best programs.
What he saw unsettled him – especially the reality programs.
'What about the effects of reality television on society as a whole?' he asked. 'It does a number of things. It erodes the distinction between the public and the private, which is a profoundly important aspect of our culture.'
'Much more worrying is its coarsening effect. That's partly because of the sheer vulgarity. But it's even more that it turns human beings into freaks for us to gawp at.'
'[Reality television] is not just bad television in the sense that's it's mediocre, pointless, puerile even,' explained Humphrys. 'It's bad because it is damaging.'
As far as I can see, Humphrys is right: reality TV is vulgar and it does nothing to help make our world a better, happier or more truthful place.
Reality producers and programmers are looking for the knee-jerk response and the quick advertising dollars that come from an instant audience.
The audience they attract, though, is the kind that used to turn up to watch travelling freak shows – an audience that is hungry for something it can look down upon, something or someone that makes it feel superior in some way.
Unscrupulous writers, moviemakers and other artists have long recognized that the cheapest way to grab an audience's attention is through crude sensationalism. Violence is one means to that end. 'Freakery' is another: setting people up to look stupid and weak. Freakery does not inspire sympathy or pity, only cruel, 'thank-God-I'm-better-than-those-hopeless-losers' derision.
Aside from the effects of its crude, tabloid sensationalism, reality TV poses other dangers to our society.
For one thing, it tries to turn us all into voyeurs. If we're not careful, we become content to watch the minutiae of other people's lives instead of living out our own great adventure.
Reality TV also encourages a culture of manipulation. Contestants in these shows are encouraged to manipulate the feelings of other participants and the audience, in order to score votes and win the day.
The genre also encourages a culture of celebrity over achievement. Once, celebrities were people we celebrate for achieving something great. Now, celebrities are people who are well known for being well known, people whose real lives are buried under a load of cosmetic artifice and plastic spin doctoring.
The name 'reality TV' suggests there's something truthful about these shows, that what we're seeing is an authentic representation of life in the real world. Yet in its current form it all too often promotes values that, if accepted as 'real' by young people, will leave us with all kinds of social problems in years to come.
Let's face it, if what you see on reality TV is your idea of life in the real world – you need to get out more often!
If reality TV is all about entertainment, as its proponents claim, it is entertainment only via the lowest common denominator.
Entertainment should be about more than just appealing to our taste for sensation. It should be about lifting the human spirit, celebrating its great potential and appealing to its nobler side.
It should definitely be fun and it should certainly offer us a diversion from the problems and pressures of our everyday lives. But not at the expense of reducing us all to tasteless, mindless freak-show fans.
There's no point simply making a huge hubbub about reality TV – that just advertises the product. The best way to show our disdain is to exercise the only real control we have as viewers – turning the stuff off.
© Mal Fletcher 2004
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