Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why Reality TV Works

These past few years have seen a boom in reality TV shows. Those of us old enough remember the novelty of The Real World, Road Rules, and other soft versions of reality TV. Those semi-scripted, terribly contrived scenarios had many of us tuning in weekly. Our interest in these shows has spawned a whole new level of the genre. It is almost impossible to remember a time when every channel did not have several of these programs to choose from.

This begs the question, why do people care? What is the interest? Truthfully, we humans have always craved drama. To watch the spectacle of what happens to others.

You see, until very recently, executions were public affairs. Very public. From hangings to beheadings, people gathered by the hundreds if not the thousands. Simply for the horrific entertainment of watching someone die. People would line up to watch a firing squad. They would sit on river banks to watch soldiers shoot each other while picnicking in relative safety from the other side of the water. The gun fights of the Wild West. The burning of witches. The games of the great Coliseum. Hell, you could even buy a beard to go to a stoning. Look at any culture in any time period and one is likely to find some kind of judicial public affair.

Currently, our culture does not have an outlet for our seemingly insatiable thirst for this kind of exhibitionism. Until Reality TV came along. It is no accident that shows like Fear Factor and Survivor hold our attention. People do disgusting things, and we love it. I suspect many of us who have never watched or even heard of Jon and Kate Plus 8 will be tuning in to see if all the hype has been worth the press. Neither have I any doubt that if our executions were open to the public that people would come in droves to watch someone throw that switch.

Instead, we substitute with the next best thing: Reality TV. People line up by the thousands to participate, and there seems to be no end in sight. Watching people makes asses of themselves has taken the place of the court jester. Watching the humiliation of talent judges tearing down dreams has replaced the gladiators and their armor. Watching Japanese men and women get the shit knocked out of them to the sound of cheerful game show banter has temporarily filled the place of the actual violence whatever fill-in-the-blank activity we would be watching if we were living five hundreds years ago.

Until the next level of exhibitionist entertainment comes along, I fear we are stuck with Reality TV. Producers continually push the edge of these programs, and I don't know whether I am excited or scared to find out. And therein lies the hook.


andbabybmakesthree said...

Great post. VERY insightful!!


Coal Miner's Granddaughter said...

Reality TV of the embarrassment-factor kind I can't stand. "Let's tell these 20 women that they're going to be courted by a millionaire for six weeks and then whichever one falls in love with him? Break the news to her that he has no money in the bank!" I hate it.

I love Deadliest Catch and Mythbusters. Deadliest Catch is a perfect example of a great reality show. It's a high-stress, high-drama job that only a small handful of people will ever experience in their lives, unless you watch the show.

hereinfranklin said...

I'm a complete and total sucker for almost anything on Bravo--Real Housewives, Top Chef, Project Runway--you name it and I'm there. However, I am the only person in America who does not watch American Idol or Dancing with the Stars--I do have my standards. :)

Rassles said...

I posed this exact same theory to someone who told me I was crazy.

And modern day duels and fueds? Professional sports.

thecheekofgod said...

Many years ago, someone wrote that we have "a morbid fascination for human tragedy."

I am proud to say that, except for occasionally overhearing some program in the background, I have never watched a Reality TV show. Ever. And, by God, that's the way it's going to be . . .

Joe said...

Is this a prelude to you informing us that you have "tried out" for one of the slew of shows?

I hate to admit this, because I'm usually smarter than this, but I had NO IDEA - for the longest time - that reality shows were 'scripted'. It was only after all the reports about "The Hills" (which I DO NOT/HAVE NEVER/NEVER WILL watch) being scripted that I started to wonder.

That's probably one of the reasons that I LOVE The Office, because it seems like a reality show.

Patois said...

I can't even watch a sitcom when a character is doing something to humilate himself. I can't watch reality TV for the same reason.

Betsey Booms said...

Gah, I've been trying to leave you a comment for over a month and this is the first time I've been able to.

The hell?

A Free Man said...

God, I hate reality TV. Actually, with a couple of exceptions (HBO dramas, The Office) I hate all TV these days. It's just become - or always was - the opiate of the idiot masses.

That's a bit harsh. But I'm in that kind of mood right now.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

@babymakesthree: Thanks!

@CMGD: I agree--it is like any other kind of entertainment. There is crap and there is great, the annoying part is wading through it to find those gems.

@hereinfranklin: Those are fighting words! ;)

@Rassles: Exactly! Whoever said you were crazy obviously doesn't know their history.

@thecheekofgod: At one point I could claim the same as you. I did not watch reality tv and was damned proud of it. Sadly, that is no longer true, but we are judicious in our choices and will not watch TV just to have "something" on in the background.

@Joe: Oh lord no! No reality TV auditions for me. My talents are strictly non-camera related.

@Patois: My husband is the same way. It makes him very upset.

@BetseyBooms: You're right--what the hell? I'd been wondering where you'd been!

@AFreeMan: I understand your sentiment. I think a lot of people feel that way. I know that I did for a while. Though I do have to say it makes me feel a bit bad for sending you what I did (looks askance).

Gypsy said...

Most reality TV just makes me very, very uncomfortable. I have started watching Southern Belles: Louisville, though. I don't know what that says about me.