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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reality Shows Bite

I think I stopped watching television in a big way when reality shows began to pop up on every channel. I know that a lot of people love them. I don't. So my discourse here isn't going to appeal to any of you who watch them religiously. And why would I know anything about them if I don't watch them? I should explain the configuration of my home.

At night when I am finished teaching and come upstairs to the livingroom, I like to pull out my laptop and read or write. If I am to spend anytime at all with my husband, I have to sit in the livingroom with him as he is watching a 50-inch television that takes up a whole corner of the room. He watches a lot of reality TV, along with other dramatic series, and as a result I do as well. It's out of the corner of my eye, but the TV is so dominant that sometimes I get sucked into a scene or two, until I get bored or disgusted and put my earphones on and listen to Steely Dan. 

There are two reasons I don't like reality shows. Okay, maybe three. The first reason is because they have become insidious; once anything on television becomes a hit, every other network and station and writing team tries to duplicate it. Nobody is original. It's the "cookie cutter" effect. The same thing happens in pop music; songs, recording techniques and even singing styles are all copied or mimicked over and over, until pretty much every song sounds the same.

There was a time not so long ago in Nashville, for instance, that the same bunch of session players were playing on pretty much every country record that was being released! This makes it virtually impossible for those writers and producers (and I am married to one) who are trying to come up with fresh, new ideas, to get their work on television. I can tell you for a fact that networks will reject a television show proposal because it DOESN'T have a reality aspect to it. Can you beat that?

The second reason I don't like reality shows is because they exploit people. Now of course, these people or contestants, or whatever they are, sign up for these things and put their Joe Henry to all kinds of release papers so that producers can do whatever they want with what they shoot, so, in a sense, they know what they are getting into. Then why not put them in extreme situations and point the camera in their faces just to see how they react?

In some cases, it's almost embarrassing to see the worst come out in these participants as they are thrown into all kinds of odd, awkward and exploitative predicaments. How about pitting them against each other so we can see who's really nasty and who's the wimp? It's cheap and dishonest, kind of like a National Enquirer on TV. I wonder how many of these participants, once they see the final production, are surprised at how the editors and producers have created all kinds of situations that didn't actually happen. Which brings me to the third reason I don't like these shows.

They aren't real. They are manipulated in every conceivable way for dramatic effect, so that the audience will be compelled to keep watching. I think most people know this as they are watching...but I'm assuming that many don't. When you listen to a conversation about the latest episode of some such reality series, people sound like they've been completely sucked in by the events, and yet the events are often faked. On the other hand, I've heard people talk about soap opera's as if the characters and events were real. Holy crap.

But now we come to "Jon and Kate Plus 8". I've seen bits and pieces of this show and participated in conversations about it, but the most recent events have really perturbed me. There are 8 small children on that show being followed around by a production team recording every moment of their little lives. That would be a strange enough environment to grow up in, but what has made it worse recently is that a lot of very personal stuff is coming to light about their parents which is probably making for even more tension in that house than usual. I won't go into the details, you can find that out for yourself. That is, if you haven't already heard! It's everywhere right now; in newspapers, on television news programs and talk shows and the internet. You can't miss it.

Just this morning I saw a snippet of a conversation between a morning news anchor and a psychologist discussing the effects of these events on those little kids. How parents would agree to have their child's every moment documented on television in the first place is beyond me, but I guess it's expensive to take care of such a large family so I'm sure the paycheque helps. However, recently it has become about these very personal issues; this family could literally fall apart before the television audiences' eyes. Do we really want to see that? It just feels so wrong to me. How they could choose to continue in light of these events, I don't know.

But now we have another aspect to this whole nasty business. The ratings are going through the roof. Everybody loves watching a train wreck. And if the parents are even thinking of walking away from it all, you can bet there will be all kinds of heavy weights, producers, TV execs et al, begging them to continue. After all, it's about the ratings. So the irony of it all is that reality, true reality, has smacked this little family in the face. And we get to watch. Isn't that great?? Maybe a few of us will get the idea and do the right thing. Stop watching. I don't know what's going to happen to those eight little kids, but I don't think it's my right to know.

Reality shows bite.

IJ