Considering Reality Television
The New York Times has a pretty good Room for Debate discussion on the merits (or lack there of) of reality TV. I think that all the participants chime in with some good and worthwhile points. Additionally, I consider this topic one of real interest to me. I have maintained strong opinions and ideas about reality TV since the airing of the first season of Survivor in 2000 (which, I admit, I followed very closely). In particular, I paid a lot of attention to reality TV in my pre-grad college experience, writing several papers what dealt with the subject, and even being in a class, aptly named “The Real World” which partially focused on reality TV (amongst the broader concept of “what is real?” in arts and literature).
I think part of my personal interest in reality TV, from the beginning, was just how apparently “unreal” all of it seems. Yes, roughly speaking, most reality television programs are unscripted and allow for their subjects to display real emotions and real reactions to situations, however, anything that encounters any degree of editing, or controlling of situation, setting, or emotion, is far from being a truly “real” thing. Furthermore, the fact that we, the audience, view these “realities” through a device like a television, only further separates the “reality” of the situation. What reality TV is then, is a rough semblance of reality, that many of us suspend our disbelief and allow to be a temporary surrogate for what reality must really be. It is, to use Jean Baudrillard’s term, pure simulacra.
Beyond that, I think that reality TV plays an important role in consideration of the concept of “celebrity” within our society. One of my last (and favorite) papers I wrote in college dealt specifically with the concept of celebrities and how, in the way we regard them, they are essentially different from humans (not biologically mind you, simply socially different). In addition, I posited that celebrities are not natural phenomena, but instead social constructs. Pairing these thoughts with things like reality TV and we can see how people allow themselves to be constructed as celebrities, and the pros and cons that follow from such a classification. Personally, with this in mind, I am less interested in the question that Room for Debate piece asks “Is reality TV as worthwhile as other programming, or has it lowered the bar?” and instead, want to ask myself, “Has reality TV lowered the bar for humanity in general?”
Reality TV is here to stay, I have little to no doubt about that (not necessarily because it is good or bad programming, but simply because it is effective as making lots of money). As a cultural phenomena of entertainment, but also as a source of social commentary, it is deserving of further scrutiny, and in many occasions, rigorous criticism. As long as some of us are willing to take a scalpel to it, to consider it further, we can continue to pull some worth from the whole endeavor.