Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why I Hate Reality TV: And It's Not Just Because It Is (Oxy)Moronic

Even though close friends of the Radical know that every once in a while I lapse into an intense fascination with American Idol, I hate reality TV. Except for the classic foremother of the genre, An American Family (1973), I've never seen one series that even approached something "real" that was worth knowing. But until now I have never been able to say why I hate them so much beyond a deep feeling that it is simply improper to make an ever so brief living by allowing a camera crew to violate your privacy for months. I also find reality TV boring: who watches Tori and Dean for example? Women who fantasize about a life folding laundry and talking to unemployed gay men who wander in and out for no reason?

Clearly I have reasons for hating reality TV that I have not been able to articulate, and it isn't because it's bad TV. I watch shows like Gossip Girl, Army Wives and the ever-mawkish Brothers and Sisters as though they were a form of demented religion.

There are, of course, the little things I hate about reality TV. For example, I am puzzled by the idea that your average housewife or househusband solving daily problems is of deep cultural significance when we can't even have a logical conversation about delivering routine health care to the American working family. I hate Survivor because a group of Americans (who are mostly white, but I don't actually care what color they are) pretending that they have been reduced to "savagery" is a form of neo-imperial racist entertainment that I can't even wrap my head around. Admittedly, the show has contributed useful phrases to the academic enterprise: has anyone else been on a search committee where, dizzy with the effort of trying to exclude any number of excellent candidates from a finalist list, it has been reluctantly agreed to that So-and-so will be "voted off the island?" But I can't watch even a commercial for Survivor without wondering why the indigenous people of Samoa don't pull themselves together to sue CBS.

Then there are the lengths to which people are willing to go in the name of self-transformation and personal fulfillment that seem to be most closely related to the desperation of participants in dance marathons and six-day bicycle races during the 1920s. Last night, here in South Africa, I watched a reality show that combines so many aspects of other successful shows that it makes you dizzy ( my friend asked, "Why do they always have a judge with a British accent?" I answered without thinking, "Because of Simon." But I'm right, aren't I?) The show is called Dance Your Ass Off, and features very heavy people who are competing to lose weight and become professional dancers. In between performances we see them rehearsing, blubbering about how bad they feel about themselves, and dieting (looking at the website, my guess is that as the show progresses they feel better about themselves and gush about that.) After the dance performances (which are quite good, and make you wonder exactly why dancers are supposed to be thin) they are scored on the quality of the performance and how many pounds they have lost since last week. One performer had lost nine pounds in a week, and I thought: isn't that dangerous?

But I now know precisely what I hate about reality shows after reading a full account of Michele and Tareq Salahi gate crashing a White House state dinner. And yes, it is entirely the fault of the Secret Service that their tawdry little scheme worked. But why did the Salahis do it? Because they are competing to be chosen for a reality TV show!!! This follows on, of course, the Colorado couple who caused several hundred thousand dollars worth of emergency services to be scrambled because they claimed, falsely, that their child had launched himself in a home-made flying contraption.

What to do, what to do? One thing that strikes me is that scholars have to go through Institutional Research Boards when working with human or animal subjects. We have to demonstrate the importance of the research and, particularly when humans are involved, show that the research itself is not causing harm or exploiting vulnerable populations (when animals are involved, researchers are still allowed to do things that are more or less ghastly to some of us.) Why is there no version of this for commercial television?

Now you may say that these fools who volunteer for reality TV have free will, and the right to contract to make idiots of themselves. They do. But you look at cases like the Salahis, and the Survivor contestants, or Mr.and Mrs. Heene, the parents who put their son at the center of a media s**t storm and landed him in foster care to boot, and you have to ask the question: who else are they hurting through their narcissistic desire to be famous at any cost? Might the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stop worrying for a moment about who is jammed in whose crotch at the American Music Awards and deal with this? An independent body needs to be commissioned to ask these reality show people to present proposals that demonstrate, unequivocally, that however shameless their participants are, no one will be harmed by the show and no laws will be broken in filmng it.

Some equivalent of a television IRB would ask the producers of the as-yet uncast "Housewives of D.C." (the show the Salahis are trying to get on) to present a list of stunts that their prospective participants will perform at any phase of production. If "break into a White House State dinner" were on that list, the IRB would say no, you can't do that, it's illegal. Then if they did it anyway, the telly IRB would cancel the show.

I understand that there are plenty of problems with IRBs, and frustrations attached to having to work through them. One would have to take that into account when imagining a commission that theoretically would have the power to censor culture before it was even made. The most frequent complaint I hear is non-experts seeing harm where there is none, and restricting social science research in particular. On the other hand, regulation, however imperfect, feeds a lively conversation about research ethics. Conversely, a complete lack of regulation produced research projects like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which African-American men were told they were being treated but were actually doomed to a long, gruesome death from the disease.

But there are things that are less controversial about IRBs that the FCC might usefully think about in relation to reality shows. They watchdog the exploitation of vulnerable populations, and take into account that people can be fully informed and make decisions that they wouldn't make if they didn't have a lot of problems already. They prohibit the commission of crimes. They prohibit the exploitation of people who are captive in some way. And some even look closely at how publishing the research might lead to unintentional misrepresentation of the subjects.

Indeed, the television and film industry already has a code stating clearly that there is "a duty to consider the welfare of animals under their control and that this care should be separate from the interests of film production." It applies to all "vertebrates" except for "human beings and fish."

So let's get on it about the human beings. And the fish, if you like.


Janice said...

Hear, hear! Currently my husband is fascinated by re-runs of "The Amazing Race" and I was horrified to see that one of the tasks contestants were faced with was to eat a kilo of caviar.

A kilo! That's obscene both in the sheer waste and what that could do to a digestive system.

Sure, the producers could say, they had a choice. A choice only vaguely described in the "clue" to either drink some vodka (one shot that they had to balance on a sword blade, but they wouldn't know that until they taxi'd to the site) or eat (the kilo of caviar).

Reality TV thrives on cruelty, whether verbal (think "Hell's Kitchen") or physical. It's always emotionally abusive and I'd love to see at least some sort of ethics review of the stunts put in place to ensure that basic limits were recognized.

Until then, you can bet that I wince when those "Amazing Race" re-runs are airing locally!

Sapience said...

The one exception to this madness in Reality TV (so far as I can tell) is So You Think You Can Dance, which is the only reality TV show I'll watch. There's no one as mean as Simon Cowell (thank God, as he's the reason I won't watch Idol), and they are usually only mean to the contestants who are arrogant asses. There's nothing backstabbing or nasty about it or what the "real" people say about one another, the dances are usually amazingly beautiful, and if Mary would just turn the volume down about 10 notches, it would be as close to perfect as you could come. =)

Cathcart said...

Many kudos from a new reader of your so excellent blog.

I find it hard to believe that there can't at least be more protection for children on these shows. Life can be hard enough for child actors who can at least take comfort that most people understand that they are playing a part. I don't know how anyone can pretend that having a child's real-life train wreck of a family aired on national television does the poor kid no harm. Perhaps I should call my mother and thank her for never talking about her sex life on Bravo...

Katrina said...

There is a qualitative difference between the type of "reality" shows in which the contestants must demonstrate some kind of talent or skill to win (American Idol, Top Chef, Project Runway) versus the kind where it is simply a contest of (un)popularity among some very ordinary individuals (Survivor, Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, The Bachelor). American Idol (and So You Think You Can Dance) is just a newer version of the old talent shows that have been around since TV began.

But I am still puzzled by the (increasingly ironic) descriptor of "Reality" television. The original fly-on-the-wall documentaries of the 1970s and 80s, as you mention: these were reality shows. The current programs are so contrived as to be completely unreal. They are, I am sure, just as scripted as an episode of Days of Our Lives, only the performers are less talented.
Even the canned-laughter sitcom crap of the 1970s and 80s seems like a cultural highpoint next to most of this "reality" garbage.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

The way you've summed this up, TR, put me in mind of one of the truisms of child psychology: that to a small child, there's very little difference between good attention and bad attention; hence, the phenomenon of children "acting out." The mentality of someone wanting to be famous for eating three pounds of live grubs seems to be no different.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

For anyone who enjoys cooking and/or eating gourmet food, Top Chef is actually fascinating. It is very little about personality narishkeit, and very much about the actual skill of cooking. It is even better than Project Runway in that the judges on Top Chef are extremely analytical and detailed about their judgments and provide a fascinating insight into high-level professional gourmet cooking. This is quite different from Michael Kors with his "She looks like a two-bit tranny slut in an embroidered garbage bag" and Heidi Klum going on about whether the models' asses look fat.

In relation to the "real" reality shows, I find it unsettling that people are so hungry for fame, that they are perfectly happy to be famous for being complete, utter, total douchebags.

K said...

Thats it! You've done it! You've figured out how to get the kind of research I want to get done w/o the hassles of the IRB!

Instead of a fancy "paticipatory action research" group or "field methods" or any theoretical backing, I will make a reality TV show. Ten autistic adults on an island! Don't miss all the awkward social interaction after this commercial break! (I think autistics would make lousy competative "reality" show contestants, personally, so maybe more of a "Real World" style autism house?)


Then I could just write my dissertation about the TV show, a book-length deconstruction of existing media.

Thanks again!

Julie said...

Usually I like you, Tenured Radical, but this sounds downright grumpy. It's all the rage to hate reality tv and trash because it takes us away from Real Life (Adorno on radio comes to mind) but the purpose of reality tv is to make people feel that their own lives are unreal. That's what happens in capitalism. I wouldn't be so quick to diss it, before we understand why and how it has the power and purchase that it does. Who watches Tori and Dean? I do, actually.

Sisyphus said...

Don't forget _Wife Swap,_ which I stuck on for a few minutes while flipping through the channels in my holiday-access-to-tv-marathon over break.

And I also saw ads for _Intervention_ and some horrifying shows with 12 and 18 children, respectively (like _Jon and Kate Plus 8_ --- which I loathe --- but the added conservative "quiverfull" mentality.)

I would say that all these "reality" shows (yes, edited and scripted pretty tightly as people mention) function today a lot like freak shows did in the 19th C --- that they provide us an opportunity to mock those inferior to us and feel like our lives are so much better in comparison.

Tenured Radical said...


Well, by way of explanation, I do have an inner curmudgeon. But to defend my point of view here: on the one hand I do come close to a good culture/bad culture argument (and decalre my affinity for "bad" culture). I'm not sure I think the only purpose of reality TV is to make the rest of us feel unreal, but real-er (though who could be more unreal than Tori Spelling? Perhaps I can't handle her inane chatter long enough to get sucked in.) But re. Comrade PhysioProf's comment: what bothers me is both the "anything goes" attitude and the implicit encouragement of many of these shows (not all) to audience members to revel in one's inner bully, inner snob, inner -- whatever. Part of what I dislike about Dance Your Ass Off, for example (which is non-bullying) is that it stigmatizes heavy people while pretending not to. No one even uses the words fat, overweight, heavy: it's that these people are "unhealthy" and have gathered the courage to "help themselves." Hence, throughout the course of the show, and on the website, the myth is perpetuated that to be fat is to be unhealthy (new studies have shown that this is not the case), of low self esteem, unlovely, unsexy, and unwilling to "help" oneself (a burden on society.)

Re. Tori Spelling, isn't the point of the show that we are being encouraged to feel superior to a vastly wealthy woman with no talent whatsoever, who would not ever have been an "actress" at all if her family wasn't so influential in the industry?

I guess why the White House gate crashing finally got me going is that the lack of regulation of these shows is starting to impinge on the public in ways that are potentially dangerous, not to mention disrespectful (this was a state dinner for the Indian Prime MInister, the political leader of one of one of the largest and most influential countries in the world!!)


Bardiac said...

I really find the fake competition by doing stupid things irritating. Why do you have to go to some far off exotic locale to put together a hookah (I actually saw this one one) or slide down a water slide? Because capitalism wants to sell cruises and tours!

I wish they'd take all that energy and actually do something meaningful.

I did like the older reality show where two families swapped and redecorated a room in each others' home. I think that's gone now, though. It seemed less mean spirited and more actually useful than most I see commercials for or wander by with the remote.

Scott McLemee said...

I agree with you except for thinking that "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" is one of the great artworks of the century, thus far.

This is possibly overstated. I may yet think the better of saying it. But it's sort of a meta-reality show. All the assumed rules are on display, as is the basic cruelty of the whole genre.