Reality TV made its first appearance in 1948 in the form of the show “Candid Camera”. It was relatively harmless, merely showing people as themselves when put into mildly comical situations, for example trying to work a broken water pump. Such good natured humour left participants momentarily embarrassed but with their privacy and dignity intact. However, by 1973 with the production of a show called “An American Family” Reality TV began to head down the road that’s taken it to where it is today. PBS brought cameras into the home of Pat and Bill Loud, filming them as they went about their daily lives for seven months. During this time viewers were able to live vicariously through the families ups and downs, including when their son first declared himself gay.
Today there are countless Reality TV shows; from “Survivor” to “Big Brother”, prime time television is plagued by an onslaught of voyeuristic TV. Some shows are clearly more deplorable than others. “Joe Millionaire” for example puts a construction worker on dates with 20 women, all of them thinking he is a multimillionaire, the objective being to see if money really does matter. MTV, a channel that used to be associated with music videos, now fields more Reality TV shows than most other channels. “Next” sets 5 often stereotypically flawed suitors up with an often glamorous bachelorette who then has the option to “next” any of the suitors during their first date and move on to the next candidate. The behaviours exhibited by participants are often perverse and not at all reflective of real world dating.
It would seem that unlike in previous generations where TV shows such as “Father Knows Best” spoon-fed young people good morals, today’s generation is instead getting an unhealthy dose of bad morals from the TV it watches. However, some would argue that today’s young people are more media-savvy than their parents and know how to handle such exposure while not becoming overly influenced by it. Nevertheless, young people are naturally impressionable and I find it hard to believe that they can be exposed to such extremes in culture at such a young age and not be affected. One show that has had an obvious affect has been another of MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen”. Before this show came on air, overgenerous parties for sixteenth birthdays were relatively uncommon, now they are widespread.
Perhaps one of the sicker ways that Reality TV is shown is when a show becomes an extreme “voyeur-fest” of judgmental viewing. “Made” has young people with dreams of greatness attempt to reach their goals through training with professionals while being filmed by a crew that tracks their progress. Sounds good right? It would be if the producers would actually pick capable people to take part. Instead they choose those who are bound to fail so that we, the audience, may laugh at them. Apparently watching an obese girl trying to become a star basketball player and then breaking down when she finds she can’t, is good TV.
With Reality TV only soaring in popularity, people are set to think more about who should get voted off of Big Brother rather than who should get voted into Parliament. So what is that compels people to watch these shows? Some researchers say that watching reality TV is a way for people to feel better about their own lives. Supposedly they make one think, “I may be having a bad day, but life is going better for me than for that bloke eating bugs.” Others brand Reality TV as “discomfort TV” rather than “comfort TV”. They say that people merely welcome the opportunity to feel discomforted by what they see on the screen. I watched some myself before writing this article and found that Reality TV is now such a big part of our society that knowing what’s going on with the subjects on the show is a conversational boon between peers. One almost needs to know what’s happened to the latest celebs on Survivor so as to take part in everyday conversation.
But just how real is Reality TV? Cast members of “Survivor” have revealed that producers guided their statements during confessionals, controlled their consumption for product placement reasons, and refused to interfere even when violence became a concern. How much is scripted and controlled in these shows to produce dramatic affect? Sometimes it’s obvious, but one is often left wondering just how much they script and yet pass off as real.
Reality TV allows us to look at others stuck in troublesome situations and judge them for ourselves, sometimes those we see are just being put on the TV so that we may laugh at them. There is something fundamentally wrong with this idea. When I watch a comedy show I know it’s OK to laugh when a character befalls misfortune because it’s a comical situation that isn’t really happening. But when I watch Reality TV and witness laughter at the contestant who is encountering genuinely upsetting misfortune, I can’t help but wonder if TV, and its viewers, has sunk to an all new low. Sadly, TV probably won’t be rising above its newfound low anytime soon. Reality TV is not a fad like many had hoped, and will continue to be a success for many generations to come until, in all likelihood, something far worse replaces it.