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?