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Getting a Grip on Reality TV

The highs and lows of television's megatrend.

by Mark D. Johnson
June 30, 2001

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Getting a Grip on Reality TV_Mark D. Johnson-The highs and lows of television's megatrend. It’s been about a year now since the first “Survivor” series debuted and became a phenomenon by summer’s end, launching a tidal wave of reality-based programming, the fastest-growing trend in television history. The number of such shows now aiming to cash in on that success seem too numerous to count as the networks orgiastically fill up their schedules with knock-off variations on a theme. While many viewers can’t get enough, for those not caught up in the craze the popularity of Reality TV is grating, and a skeptical eye is cast upon those who fall prey to it. Indeed, the genre’s somewhat trashy reputation is deserved to some degree, thanks to infamous examples like “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?,” “Temptation Island,” and, before the reality boom, “Cops,” and Jerry Springer. It is a mistake, though, to dismiss all reality-based shows as poor entertainment, just as it is foolish to take them too seriously.

Fraud Factor

A common complaint about these shows is that, ironically, what you see is not actually real, despite the producers’ efforts to persuade you to the contrary. I would argue that the key to enjoying a good reality show is accepting the fact that they are tightly edited, leaving a lot of reality out, with directors controlling as much as they can to stir up some tense or emotional drama and “real people” cast members hungry for instant fame and fortune. Audiences should be savvy enough to recognize that some degree of smoke and mirrors is necessary - that these are not documentaries, but carefully-crafted ratings-driven TV shows. That said, the practice of manipulating and coaching the “stars” of these shows is a troublesome area that could ultimately leave viewers scrambling for the remote, as producers cross more ethical lines in order to one-up the competition.

Reality TV seems almost certain to shoot itself in the foot with a scandal similar to that of the fifties quiz shows. Already, “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett has been accused of meddling in tribal council voting (and recently admitted that some challenge scenes were re-enacted by stuntmen to provide better camera angles), and cast member Mike’s dramatic severe burns in “Survivor II” foreshadow a eventual disaster of unconscionable proportion, all for the sake of entertainment. Will the Reality Show Scandal involve a death? It seems possible, doesn’t it?

Perhaps this summer’s most talked-about new entry, “Fear Factor,” which airs Mondays on NBC, is a perfect example of what makes these shows riveting to some, and reviled by others. Each week, three men and three women (“real people”), face their fears by competing in three stunts, some physically-challenging, some mentally-difficult, with the winner going home with $50,000. Compelling are the stunts themselves and watching everyday people do them: eating live beetles or a mouthful of worms, getting pulled through mud by two galloping horses, being covered with live rats or snakes, performing tasks at high speed or at fearsome heights. As with “Survivor,” the question that arises within the viewer is not just “Can they do it?” but also “Would I do it?” Eye-rolling aspects of the show include the too-casual, immature host, “American Gladiator”-style contestant profiles, pre-stunt “psych-out” jabber among the contestants, low production values, and over-dramatization.

So why the sudden fascination with reality? Is it the fantasy-inducing idea that anyone can be a TV star? Do we relate better to regular people than to celebrities? Is unscripted dialogue and behavior more interesting than the more familiar contrived situations? Do we simply have a thing for voyeurism? Perhaps it has something to do with our increasing comfort with advancing media technology in a society in which the average person is more accustomed to omni-present cameras and immediate communication; a culture in which fame seems more accessible.

The “Real World” Turn-on

This summer, as the American public tunes in to the current onslaught of Reality TV, the show which provided the model for the now-standard interspersed interviews is celebrating its tenth season. MTV’s “Real World 10” bows Tuesday, July 3 with a new cast set in New York City. In its early years, people beyond their college years had difficulty taking “The Real World” concept seriously. Again, it hardly seemed real for seven kids to be living together in an exciting part of a glamorous city in a hip million-dollar home while working only part-time and partying full-time. How could the interaction be real when cameras are on the cast all hours of the day and night? How can they really be themselves?

I, for one, resented this show for its first seven or eight seasons, shocked at what was being presented as real life toward a young, impressionable audience. Promiscuity, raging drunkenness, and plain stupidity were there on display for all to see. It seemed that this was a reality that the general public could do without. And then something happened: I got my MTV. I ordered cable television and wound up sitting on the couch far too often, flipping through the channels over and over again. And then one weekend I came upon a “Real World” marathon, in which MTV airs episodes from a few entire seasons back to back all weekend long. Something must have caught my eye, probably shocking in nature, and soon I learned all the names of the cast members, and what they were like, and before I knew it, I’d spent most of the weekend watching these crazy, fascinating, stupid, intelligent, lost, and competent kids live a highly-unrealistic part of their lives. Against my wishes, I was hooked. Sure, you question the motives of these people sometimes, and they are often outrageous and uninhibited to a fault. Yet there is truly a glimpse of reality in the self-exploration among these youngsters trying to figure out their place in the world. I still worry about young kids watching it, but it is compelling TV nonetheless.

“Real World” succeeds in large part due to its casting, admirable editing, a brisk pace, and an appropriate rock soundtrack. Casting is all-important for a reality-based show to succeed, as CBS found out last summer with “Big Brother” and its shockingly dull cast (look for a retooled “Big Brother 2” and a sassier cast starting July 5). Having the right mix of people to produce sparks – belligerent, romantic, or otherwise – is ultimately the only way to keep an audience. Generally, you can count on reality show cast members to be unusually well-spoken, often able to articulate their thoughts and feelings with a poignancy that would elude even the best scriptwriters. It also may take good producers to get that out of them, but in the end, it is those improvised bits of reality that make “Real World” and the like worth watching.

Sometimes frivolous entertainment can make you think. What’s so bad about that?   PO

A Partial Observer’s Guide to Reality TV
By Mark D. Johnson

Quiz shows: Forget “Millionaire” and “Weakest Link” – tune in to “You Don’t Know Jack” (ABC) with Paul Reubens and “Win Ben Stein’s Money” (Comedy Central) for something more witty and entertaining.

Voting-Off shows: “Survivor” still rules, but it needs more variety than a new cast and location for it to survive in the long term. ABC’s intriguing “The Mole” returns next fall. MTV’s “Road Rules” (“Real World” in an RV) changes its format to vote out weak members – a shameful compromise, though I admit I never watched the show.

Romantic Reality: “Blind Date” (Syndicated) is a riot for mature audiences. Resist “Temptation Island.”

Voyeurism: European megahit “Big Brother” still has U.S. potential. The drastic changes for “Big Brother 2” are bound to be an improvement, but last season’s bumbling producers may have sealed its fate. ABC’s “SpyTV” is an infantile rip-off of “Candid Camera” on shaky ethical ground.

Reality Mix: MTV’s “The Real World” set the standard for the genre (not recommended for younger teens – they can check out Disney Channel’s “Bug Juice,” which is Real World Lite set at a summer camp). “Fear Factor” (NBC) has high gawk value, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Comments (1)

Post a Comment

Nimrod from Babel writes:
July 1, 2001
Dear Editor,

My understanding is that part of the glut of game show/reality tv on prime time had, of course, to do with the popularity of Millionaire and Survivor but also because the networks needed low-cost content to offset the looming writer's strike (which never occurred). They wanted to save some of their fiction content to air as original programming during that theoretical strike, and that meant airing more unscripted reality shows in the meantime. So we may see the lamer reality shows fade out in a season or two. CBS would never had prepared Big Brother 2 following the failed Big Brother had it not been anticpating a strike.



[The author responds:

There may be some truth in the writer's strike theory, but I'm not convinced that networks would not have gone overboard with reality programming anyway. The key word you used was low-cost. These shows are so relatively inexpensive to produce that I believe network execs are still willing to take their chances in hope of stumbling upon the next Survivor at the expense of sitcoms and dramas.

I think it is unlikely that Big Brother 2 was intended as a back-up since it was slated for the summer anyway. Big Brother 1 failed to meet unrealistic expectations last summer, but still beat re-run numbers. Plus, the European versions have shown that with the right casting, it can be wildly popular. If they don't get it right this time, however, I don't expect a Big Brother 3.]

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