A closer look at reality tv
Culture Current Featured

A closer look at Reality TV

The reality seed

Poor Little Rich Girl has sixties style icon Edie Sedgwick in her New York apartment acting out a day in her own life.

The beginning scene shows an out-of-focus Sedgwick sleeping, then waking up to talk on the phone, smoke cigarettes, put on makeup, and try on outfits.

It was Warhol’s films that catapulted her into superstardom. Unlike traditional actors, her natural personality was infectious and her style so unique that she did not need to put on a mask or take on a different persona to attract audience — people just wanted to see Edie be Edie. The public was fixated with this beautiful magnetic socialite.

In 1966 Andy Warhol released Chelsea Girls, a film done in a similar style and featuring many of Andy Warhol’s superstars including Brigid Berlin, Mary Woronov, and Velvet Underground’s Nico. Newsweek praised the film for being the “Iliad of the underground” while film critic Rex Reed called it, “a three-and-a-half hour cesspool of vulgarity and talentless confusion which is about as interesting as the inside of a toilet bowl.”

Like anything new or avant-garde, it was met with equal parts praise and criticism, but Warhol tapped into something interesting by capturing real moments. He had captured the audience’s desire for something authentic.

Warhol seemed to describe what many wanted but were unable to express when he said, “I’m the type who’d be happy not going anywhere as long as I was sure I knew exactly what was happening at the places I wasn’t going to. I’m the type who’d like to sit home and watch every party that I’m invited to on a monitor in my bedroom.” That is exactly what reality television has given us — an answer to our voyeuristic need.

The age of “reality” television

Although there were a few reality-like television shows throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, it was not until the 2000s that the reality television genre gained prominence.

According to Kevin Schut, media studies professor at Trinity Western University, if you look at the cultural context at the time, “there was this deep hunger in popular culture for non-scripted, non-produced material.” He says that during the early 2000s, popular culture was filled with ultra produced phenomena that included slick boy bands and over-processed pop stars. Audiences were craving something more authentic.

Reality television seemed to be the answer. MTV had already seen success with their early ’90s hit the Real World, a show in which eight strangers are picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Of those auditioning to be filmed, some were aspiring actors and musicians desperate to get noticed. There were jocks wanting to reclaim their varsity popularity and wallflowers that had finally gained the confidence to be seen — here were people who all wanted a soapbox and their 15 minutes of fame.

While the strangers almost always started out as a group of chummy friends, soon after settling in, each character slowly revealed their baggage. Shortly after, rivalries are formed, romances are ignited, and drama ensues.

Producers and network executives began to take notice. Without the need for elaborate sets or trained actors, costs could be kept low. Network executives came to see the profits that could be made and the reality television genre started to gain popularity.

Foreign imports such as Survivor and Big Brother were Americanized and fed to audiences who gobbled them up. This was authentic drama and it hardly cost anything to produce.

These shows were definitely different from scripted dramas. Because reality television contestants were real people, viewers could better identify with them. They didn’t have that singsongy quality in their voices that actors sometimes have and their facial expressions did not have to be perfect for every frame.

The dark irony

Like Schut, John G. Stackhouse, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, agrees that unscripted television is a backlash from years of overly-fictionalized material.

“Some of reality TV expresses a hunger for authenticity. We’ve been entertained so long by such clever fictions,” he says. “It’s refreshing to see things as they really are.” However, he also states, “The dark irony, of course, is that reality TV is generally very carefully scripted, shot, edited, and presented so that it’s hardly more ‘real’ than anything else on television.”

This edited reality was explicitly revealed on the season finale of MTV’s The Hills. In the final moments of the season finale, lead protagonist Kristin Cavallari says a tearful goodbye to her friend and former boyfriend Brody Jenner. They share a heartfelt and bittersweet moment after which she drives off to the airport ready to embark on a trip to Europe.

As Jenner stares off into the distance on a Los Angeles street watching her leave, the fake backdrop suddenly rolls away, cameras pan out and we see Jenner standing on a Hollywood lot with crew members surrounding him. He starts clapping and smiling, then Cavallari gets out of her car, runs towards Jenner and they embrace.

The actors and performers

While these new programs were marketed as reality shows, people quickly began to realize that not only were they scripted, but in most cases those starring were struggling actors hoping to pay their bills and possibly gain recognition by getting some on screen time.

Max Clough is very familiar with the practice of reality television casting. As a Vancouver actor, he tells us that most of the people on these shows are actually struggling performers. “I’d say at least 90 per cent of people on reality television are actors,” he says. Clough himself has even appeared on the Canadian reality TV show Mantracker. The premise of the show is built around Terry Grant, an expert tracker who pursues prey (two individuals) in the North American wilderness. The prey must elude Grant and reach the finish line within 36 hours.

Clough knew what producers would be looking for when he sent in his audition tape. As a former varsity football athlete, he has an imposing build and a deep gruff voice. He knew that he had to play to the stereotype of the big mean man if he wanted to get the part. “I kind of came up with a composite character,” says Clough who describes his persona as a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger from Predator and wrestler The Rock.

Although his character did come alive on screen, Clough says he was a little displeased with the editing process. “If I ever did it again I just wouldn’t show the obnoxious side of myself. I didn’t know how it was gonna go and I didn’t know the pitfalls of reality television so I was as outgoing as possible,” he says. “I don’t usually go around yelling at people all the time.”

Some of reality tv expresses a hunger for authenticity… the dark irony, of course, is that reality tv is generally very carefully scripted, shot, edited, and presented so that it’s hardly more ‘real’ than anything else on television.

John G. Stackhouse, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College

Voyeurism and schadenfreude

Although we know much of it is scripted, the idea of reality television is appealing partially because it allows viewers the intimate interaction with a subject or a group of people. Peeking into the lives of others satisfies an innate curiosity each of us have.

This genre also provides us with the satisfaction of seeing others humiliated. And while we might not feel comfortable with admitting it, perhaps laughing at the misfortunes of others makes us feel better about ourselves.

Reality stars do not lack the sense of inhibition we may lack — they subject themselves to fights, publicly humiliate themselves, and say exactly what is on their minds without holding back. Even if watching them navigate uncomfortable situations may make us cringe, it is nevertheless entertaining, almost like staring at a horrible car accident on the side of the road. It may look gruesome, but it is difficult to look away.

The danger of it all

This brings us to the question that we must finally ask, are we as viewers influenced by what we watch on television? If this is the case, and shows that celebrate debauchery such as Jersey Shore, The Real World, and The Bachelor are gaining massive network ratings, this could be cause for concern.

Schut points to a famous study by psychologist Albert Bandura who hypothesized that the way we learn to behave is based on the role models we see. Because he was very interested in violence in media, he conducted a study that would test the effects of violence on film.

Bandura had some children watch a film where an adult was playing with a toy normally. He had another group of children watch a film that showed an adult punching a Bobo doll. After they had watched the films, the kids were all sent to play and Bandura discovered that the children who had watched the film of an adult punching the Bobo doll were far more aggressive.

“There has been a lot of debate over whether that’s valid. The point is that that’s the theory,” says Schut. “There’s some validity to that. But there are a couple of reasons to question whether it’s quite that simple.”

First there is of course the chicken and the egg question. Which came first? Most would say that what ends up on television are the things that our society wants. This is what Schut tends to agree with.

“If you look at the kind of behaviours that are common in prime time television, there’s an overrepresentation of extramarital sex, there’s an overrepresentation of violence. So it doesn’t precisely reflect our society but it does reflect sort of our aspirations and interests and things that excite us,” says Schut. “So it could to some extent reflect a shift in our desires and our values, not necessarily our behaviours.”

The shows may reflect our desires. But that just brings us back to the chicken and the egg question. Do we as a society like watching violence, sexual immorality and relational conflict or have we just been conditioned to accept it because it’s what we see on television?

Fred Rogers, American educator and television host seemed to think that television was a much more powerful medium than we gave it credit for. “We have to remember to whom the airwaves belong, and we must put as great an emphasis on the nurturing of the human personality as we can,” he said. “I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television — or video games or newspapers or any mass media — I believe that we are the servants of this nation.”

Rogers stated in many interviews that he only got into television because he hated it and wanted to redeem it for a greater purpose. He believed that television was in fact dangerous, especially for children (one of the reasons he created a program to educate the young). He also believed that television also had the power to heal and transform. Rogers was angry with the way most producers created television programs. “You wouldn’t put a newsman on the air who didn’t know how to pronounce Vietnam. But we give millions of dollars to these people who are producing cartoons and they have no earthly idea of what they’re doing to a kid,” he said.

The redeeming qualities

While it may seem like the values presented on reality television programs are all bad, the truth is they are not. Even the most lewd of reality shows have some redeeming qualities. According to Schut, most of the time we overlook the positives. “I could see positive aspects of friendship, sticking together, loyalty, knowing how to comfort people when they’re upset, those kinds of things. I’m not saying that I’m endorsing those kinds of shows, but what I’m saying is some of that stuff is modeled as well to some extent,” says Schut specifically referring to controversial programs like Jersey Shore and Real World.

Far from being harmful, reality television programs could even be seen as modern morality tales. A show like the Amazing Race for example, could be compared to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The producers edit characters to fit certain stereotypes such as “villain”, “hero,” “coward” etc. Chaucer did this too by giving us portraits of moral and immoral characters. Like the Canterbury Tales, reality television also paints a picture of our society as a whole showing both our vices and our virtues.

Stackhouse disagrees. For him, the morality presented on these shows is nothing more than “the sentimental morality of high school,” certainly nothing new or truly instructive.

“It’s hard to see most of the shows as helpful… Most of the shows are sheer entertainment and of a pretty prurient kind: Let’s see who suffers this week; let’s see how far people are prepared to shed their dignity for money; let’s see if the person we all love to hate finally gets the vengeance we all wish upon him or her. Not high-minded stuff,” he says.

What do we make of it?

It is difficult to conclusively say whether or not reality television is necessarily good or bad for us. Some say it is harmful, yet others believe that our own internal filters can separate what is good from what is bad. Like with most things in life, moderation is key. This genre can provide an escape but should not consume one’s life.

An important thing to remember is that reality television is a mixture of fantasy and reality. It is carefully cast, scripted, and edited to form a compelling story arc. So what are we to make of it? The fact is that reality television is here to stay. The genre has proven that it has a lasting quality. For this reason we need to generate discussion on this controversial new form of cultural expression. Schut seems to sum it up nicely when he says that the danger lies in never consciously engaging the genre. “I think unexamined stuff can have unpredictable effects,” he warns.

Flickr photo (cc) by ISOtob