The advent and breadth (I won’t say depth, because there isn’t very much of that) of reality television now in existence is depressing. Isn’t it? If you disagree with me – and you’re entirely within your rights to do so – then I wonder what appeals to you about the shows. Genuinely, I do wonder, as I see nothing more than anodyne series and people trying to make themselves and their situations interesting.
The concept first started back in 1999 over in the Netherlands with the eponymously-titled Big Brother, named – in a butchery of the original – after the omnipresent character in George Orwell’s 1984, a masterpiece of storytelling and getting more and more close to a non-fiction piece with every year.
When the UK version started back in 2001, I can remember it being sold as a clever, almost sociological study into human interaction when the outside world isn’t trying to force its way into your lives. With 22 series now shown or in development, it’s quickly become apparent that this most certainly isn’t the case and, let’s be frank, never was; its entertainment and shock values were the only things they were actually interested in, and have been ever since.
The show is notable for involving the internet. Although the show typically broadcasts daily updates during the evening (criticised by viewers and former contestants – seeming to be, for all I know, genuinely surprised – for heavy editing by producers; that can’t be news to them, surely?), viewers can also watch a continuous feed from multiple cameras online.
The reality genre has various standard tropes, including “confessionals” (also called talking heads, interview segments, or – as I prefer to call them – drivel) used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows’ narration. In competition-based reality shows, a notable and growing number, there are other common elements, such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of “immunity from elimination.”
I was stunned to learn that, in the United States, various channels have transformed to focus on reality programmes; most famously MTV, which began in 1981 as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s. Perhaps some of you will appreciate just how depressing it was to write that sentence; music, one of the greatest creations in any civilisation, has been replaced on one channel at least by reality TV. It’s enough to make you want to puke, it really is.
In any case, I’m not entirely sure why I’m still calling it reality, because the entire genre certainly isn’t a true reflection of real life. Producers of these shows are stretching the word “reality” beyond where it’s reasonable to really take it. Participants are almost always placed in artificial situations, giving us a level of implicit fraud, before moving on to more manipulative, deceptive, and fraudulent behaviour; misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras are some of the more frequently-occurring episodes, and they’re incredibly wide-spread in what’s depressing now become an industry. Premeditated scripting (including a practice called “soft-scripting“), acting, urgings from behind-the-scenes crew to create specified situations of adversity and drama, and misleading editing lead viewers to believe something to be the case when in fact the entire scene has been contrived from beginning to end. It’s often been described as “scripting without paper”; feeding participants lines of dialogue, focusing only on participants’ most outlandish behavior, and altering events through editing and re-shoots.
It can be fairly easy recognised that reality television generally costs less to produce than scripted series, at least partly explaining its proliferation. People have spent many tens of thousands of words in print and on the screen trying to defend the indefensible – reality TV’s meteoric (and cheap) rise.
I was almost driven to a bout of hysterical laughter when I read the following from VH1 executive vice president Michael Hirschorn, who really should know better. In 2007, he said that the plots and subject matters on reality television are more authentic and more engaging than in scripted dramas, and that scripted network television “remains dominated by variants on the police procedural … in which a stock group of characters (ethnically, sexually, and generationally diverse) grapples with endless versions of the same dilemma. The episodes have all the ritual predictability of Japanese Noh theater,” while reality television is “the liveliest genre on the set right now. It has engaged hot-button cultural issues – class, sex, race – that respectable television … rarely touches.”
Do I really need to outline what precisely is wrong with such asinine drivel? Surely we can all agree that Mr Hirschorn is talking absolute nonsense; reality TV anything but the liveliest genre. Its nearest equivalent is a blood-sucking mosquito, removing all life from the host it’s latched onto as a parasite until all useful intelligence and energy has been removed, leaving behind a deadly disease and a dying host – in the case of reality TV, the disease is cultural and intellectual decline, and the host is society.
Television critic James Poniewozik wrote that reality shows like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers showcase working-class people of the kind that “used to be routine” on scripted network television, but that became a rarity in the 2000s: “The better to woo upscale viewers, TV has evicted its mechanics and dockworkers to collect higher rents from yuppies in coffeehouses.”
In 2014, Entertainment Weekly and Variety noted (not for the first time) a stagnation in reality television programmes’ ratings, which they attributed to “The diminishing returns of cable TV’s sea of reality sameness”. They noted that a number of networks that featured reality programming, including Bravo and E!, were launching their first scripted shows, and others, including AMC, were abandoning plans to launch further reality programmes; though they clarified that the genre as a whole “isn’t going anywhere.” What a pity.
Let me speak plainly; these shows often humiliate or exploit participants, as well as making stars out of either untalented people unworthy of fame, infamous personalities, or both. They also glamorise vulgarity, stupidity, and asininity, and serve no useful purpose in a culturally-diverse society. In short, there’s so much good stuff out there; why are we bothering with such utter crap?