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The Value of Reality In Television

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What is reality television? Ignoring the problem of what is real and what is a mere product of consciousness, I'm sure we could all name a number of television programs referred to as “Reality TV” – popular shows I'm told include Big Brother, Survivor, and The Biggest Loser.

These shows often take a formula that has been successful in one country and apply it back home in whatever country they’re in. They are something of an immersive game show. Another kind of reality television taps into domestic absurdity among the public, from Funniest Home Videos to Super Nanny and perhaps Dr. Phil.

In all cases they offer us an interesting insight into what people like to watch. We like watching ourselves. This is fundamental to being human; how many stories concern inanimate objects and their daily struggles to avoid breaking? Indeed, when you scan the art world, the majority of human culture is drenched in stories and pictures of humans (sans perhaps the Arabic regions in certain periods).

It's no wonder there is a cult of celebrity. Throughout their careers, Hollywood actors become icons that aid audiences in decoding the kind of film they are cuing up for. Their typecasting is driven by our attachment to the particular experience they represent.

And yet, reality TV does not embrace celebrity outside the cult of the expert. It zooms in on the ordinary experiences of ordinary people, especially the struggles, and each of these programs tends to glorify specific values. The Biggest Loser embraces a culture of self-improvement and Dr. Phil embraces “common sense” (though, I sense he has a heavy bias in what he considers right and wrong).

Big Brother appears to be the most hedonistic of programs. You have a collection of individuals who are forced to interact, given their collective situation, and people will do whatever it is that makes them happy. De-constructing the imagery and setting, the program seems to emphasize a culture of individualism and personal responsibility where attachment and collectivism carry the threat of loss.

Reality TV tends to have a relatively short programming life. The ratings seem to peak for the original event and then decline with each consecutive season. Perhaps there is a deep need for something new and for original insights and experiences we have not had before. When we watch reality, we always desire to have new experiences.

To some extent we've always known this. Just look at the high turnover of news content where no two stories are the same or the popularity of sport where every match is different. Even so, this traditional kind of programming does not engage us at a deeper intimate level (sans occasional nationalism); it is abstract and separate from our everyday experience. Traditionally, we have had our needs for the personal met through fiction.

I remember when people were concerned about the blurring of reality with entertainment and the loss of credibility, but years later it doesn't seem to be a problem. In fact, as Andy Borowitz recently told The Media Report:

What's happened with young people, and I go to a lot of college campuses, I've heard this, some of them said, ‘Well I was watching The Daily Show, I was watching Jon Stewart and I thought the show was really funny, but I didn't get all the jokes. And so that made me actually seek out real news, I started watching CNN and I started reading the newspapers.’ So I actually think fake news in its own way educated the audience and makes them want to know what's the joke about.

While satire and fake news have an important role in promoting the consumption of information, a new program has finally taken the next step. The crew behind The Chaser's War on Everything behave like media, interviewing the public and directly confronting politicians, but they are satirists seeking to make their own news material.

The show is broadcast on ABC Australia and has free clips on their website. The scheduling tends to keep their popularity marginal, but being on ABC does free the crew from the economic and advertising concerns they'd face on commercial television.

Between the occasional sketch comedy routine, the team goes out of their way to play pranks on the public and various politicians. Through interacting with ordinary people in real settings, the show is definitely reality based. With a weekly segment called “What we've learned from Current Affairs,” we get to examine how contrived contemporary reporting is.

Charles Firth fulfills the role of correspondent in his segment 'Firth in the USA,' where American culture and politics has a fair share of satire. In a recent program, he interviewed Fred Phelps, the reverend behind God Hates Fags, at a demonstration. Roughly halfway through the interview, he began telling him how handsome he is and complementing him on his great butt. Phelps bolted to the back of the crowd feeling shy and embarrassed.

Is it merely funny or is there something much more significant at the center of this? The Chaser's War on Everything is what one might call “investigative satire,” in that they aren't merely making a reflective comment and are engineering an exposé on the stupid, self-righteous, bureaucratic and greedy.

It may be that the world needs much more active satire because it helps us to interpret media and the interests behind it. Are the latest reports on a new drug a real report, or are they simply playing tapes prepared by the pharmaceutical companies? Through satire, we can interpret the news in a different light and give it meaning.

True, satire does threaten the credibility of institutions, like the media; but skepticism is important in the pursuit of truth. Knowing that first hand reports on a blog might be equally as credible as a newspaper makes us think twice about everything we read. It invites the critical thinking that makes a public sphere worth having.

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About Jonathan Scanlan

  • Ty

    “Dr. Phil embraces “common sense” (though, I sense he has a heavy bias in what he considers right and wrong)”

    Dr. Phil’s problem is that on show he asks too many leading questions. I understand he needs to use leading Q’s at times to maintain control of the show, but basically every question he asks is leading and it ends up that people say what HE wants them to say. He forces people to make admissions that may not be true (We don’t know because he forces them to respond how he wants).

    “Reality TV tends to have a relatively short programming life. The ratings seem to peak for the original event and then decline with each consecutive season.”

    Very true. I watched the first season of The Apprentice, and found it mildly interesting, but when it came back I never tuned in. Only American Idol seems to captivate me to watch more and more of it.