Keeping It Unreal

14-Nov-07 11:00 PM by
Filed under Television; 2 comments.

While we're on the subject of podcasts, allow me to applaud Scientific American's Steve Mirsky for this recent installment of his daily podcast, excerpted here:

I'm not a fan of reality TV — I've never seen Survivor or The Amazing Race or any of the other programs that get big ratings. But here was real reality TV, including a real survivor — Daniel Tani, an astronaut who had made it through multiple levels of tests to get chosen in the first place, who had then undergone years of rigorous training and who was at that very moment performing incredibly dangerous work in outer space! And that left me a bit baffled. How is it that staged reality TV shows attract tens of millions of viewers, but the televised exploits of people risking their lives in space are pretty much ignored?

A good question — one to which I don't have an answer. I cancelled my TV service in early 2000, four months before Survivor debuted, which in my consciousness kicked off the modern trend toward so-called "reality TV". I narrowly escaped ever being exposed to this new genre of game show; the closest I've come was auditioning for the first season of Beauty and the Geek. (When they invited me back for the second round, I bowed out — and from what I've heard from people who have since seen the show, I made the right choice.)

Though I cannot offer an informed, hands-on opinion of reality TV, I know it's more than a semantic argument: it encapsulates and symbolizes much of what frustrates me about television in general. Though DVRs do away with many of those limitations, such as fixed scheduling and commercials, they don't change the fact that millions of viewers are consistently absorbed into vicariously experiencing other people's lives. It's a less interactive but similar addiction as MMORPGs, which has prompted the question: "Why get a Second Life when you don't have a first life?"

Understand that I wish to neither disregard television as a medium nor alienate half my readership by dismissing their favorite pastime; otherwise they would need look only as far as this blog or my DVD shelves for ample evidence of my hypocrisy. What confounds both me and Mr. Mirsky is the preference for fiction over fact. That definition could be loosely applied to music, games, theater, art — almost all entertainment is escapist in form. But television, and especially reality TV, seems to me the least productive alternative, and the one with the least bearing on real life.  Or perhaps it's not the medium, but the tendency of some — not all, but some — viewers who do not engage their programs, but use turning the TV on as an opportunity to turn themselves off.  I think we can all agree that this world could stand some more thinking.  So why not think outside the box?

2 Responses to “Keeping It Unreal”

  1. peterw adds:

    I don't directly watch many reality programs, although my wife does so I get exposure that way! My main problem with them is the variable quality, plus something I'll say more about later. Shows like Survivor and Amazing Race IMHO actually have some genuine entertainment value. But there are innumerable clones, rip-offs and cheap spin-offs that bring the level a long way down.

    The more serious concern I have — and at the same time I suspect a large factor in the success of these shows — is that most reality shows aren't real! I'm not talking about the starting premises; we all know Survivor is not truly about "survival". However most shows manipulate the "cast"/players, both directly and via plot design, so that the show becomes a peep-show into human interaction, with the lowest common denominators of plotting, conniving, betrayal, etc. becoming the true "reality" show.

    As you suggested in your article, where are the "reality" shows highlighting the best of people and their achievements?

    I sometimes wonder if this is part of the appeal of many war movies or westerns. If you start with the initial premise that the fight is "just", then people are shown working together and making sacrifices to overcome formidable odds.

    Or maybe that just isn't real in our modern world…

  2. Ken Gagne adds:

    Peter, I hope people do recognize the grammatical inaccuracy of "reality" TV. My other concern is that such programming is drawing away from television shows that are more obviously fictional.

    When I was at the Megafest, Jeremy Bulloch, the British actor who played Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy, he said that there used to be 23 new dramas on each season of British television; now there's only three, with the rest of the budget being allotted for reality TV. Even fantasy author R.A. Salvatore blamed reality TV for why the live-action Forgotten Realms series he was working on didn't take off: the staff left for the greener pasture of reality TV. Alas…