Leisure time: the devolution of reality television Photo by Jaemi Yoo
In 2000, while many were still reeling about the Y2K noncrisis, Jeff Probst and company were busy starting a cult.
After the previous decade — which was filled with popular sitcoms, teen soaps, and medical dramas — wound down, television producers like Probst found a genre audiences responded to even more enthusiastically: reality.
With Probst as host, “Survivor” ended its first season in the No. 2 spot, averaging 28.3 million viewers. Its phenomenal success foreshadowed the popularity of many reality competition shows in the following years. If the genre had stopped progressing at that point, however, it would have lost viability fast. The pressure to retain audiences, coupled with the constant demand for innovation, led to an increase in the volume of programs, but also destroyed the quality and value of the genre’s overall message.
In its early years, the central idea behind reality television was to thrust ordinary individuals into extraordinary situations and record the results in a documentary-type format. And, while it didn’t shock anyone to find out reality television isn’t “reality,” its relatability appealed to audiences. This type of programming tends to inspire an “if-they-can-do-it-so-can-I” mentality. People like to sit down and root for the Cinderella story, because seeing the underdog succeed makes us believe that outlandish dreams aren’t necessarily impossible.
This premise works: A young woman from Texas with divorced parents and financial problems named Kelly Clarkson, for example, entered a singing competition called “American Idol,” won its inaugural season, and became an international superstar. Audiences love to watch people overcome adversity. It gives them hope.
Today, most reality shows revolve around the lives of has-been celebrities or people who have done something obscure enough to find 15 minutes in the limelight.
As the genre expanded to include this shallow, narcissistic programming, the function of reality television changed. Instead of an inspirational tool, it has devolved into a hub for the glorification of poor behavior.
“Jersey Shore” is probably the most relevant example. Its cast has managed to comprehensively offend and embarrass members of the Italian-American community through their recreational use of the ethnic slur “Guido,” frequent association with alcohol-related physical altercations, and glamorization of artificial tanning. “Toddlers & Tiaras,” — which profiles child beauty pageants and has exploited young girls participating in activities such as smoking artificial cigarettes and modeling padded bras — could be seen as borderline child abuse and has been the subject of at least one court case.
This same type of morally corrupt programming pervades many of today’s reality shows. But regardless of how ethically questionable the content is, people still watch. Audiences are enthralled by the sensationalism, only encouraging the problem to snowball further and seep into everyday life. In 2009, one couple even gatecrashed a state dinner at the White House with aspirations of becoming reality TV stars.
Over the past decade, reality shows have also lost the normalcy trait that made them relatable in the first place. In some instances, even scripted television is more relatable than “reality.” ABC’s sitcom, “The Middle,” for example, is about a middle class family, which consists of two parents and their three kids. Episodes focus on familiar themes such as economic hardships and social awkwardness. This scenario is more recognizable and relatable to most than “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which followed two parents — with twins and a set of sextuplets — who became reality TV stars, made a lot of money, and subsequently experienced the dissolution of their family.
While most of the newer shows are detached from the everyday world, reality television has produced some redeeming programs. There are shows, primarily on the Discovery Channel, that promote educational premises, such as “Gold Rush,” “Man vs. Wild,” and the annual “Shark Week” feature. Programs like these prove that reality television doesn’t need to be rife with scandal to be entertaining and effective, and they provide the possibility of a positive future for the genre.
Whether reprehensible or not, reality television has proved economically fruitful thus far, and is unlikely to make an exit any time soon due to its popularity across demographics. Going forward, reality TV executives need to move away from the slippery slope of morally objectionable programming. The genre has the capacity to influence millions of viewers, and if it chooses to focus on content that is more positive and educational, audiences will once again be inspired by success instead of engrossed by slander.
Reach reporter Lauren Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @smithlm12
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