He Says / She Says: Reality TV
Author: Keith Kelson & Jean Wharton | Photographer: Photography By Anne
After more than 53 years on the air, As the World Turns will be signing off for good this year. CBS has announced that it will not renew As the World Turns for the 2010/2011 television season. The long-running soap opera that my mom, grandmother and great grandmother watched will air its final episode in September. The network cites the program’s low ratings and the network’s need to tighten its belt in these tough economic times. In other words, viewers can look forward to more hours of reality television. I hope they’re not expecting me to come along for the ride. I’d rather watch my 20-year-old VHS tapes of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. Most reality television is garbage, and while there are exceptions, the norm is hot garbage.
You’ve gotta hand it to those network executives. They make con men like Bernie Madoff look like choir boys. They promote reality television as gritty, zany unscripted fly-on-the-wall type shows where the viewer is watching real people. Just pretend not to notice that most of the real people on these shows tend to be either struggling actors trying to break into showbiz or has beens like Lorenzo Lamas trying to get their names back on the A-list. A quick check of the Internet Movie Database will prove that the phrase, “reality television” is one of the best examples of an oxymoron. You know, like “honest politician” or “jumbo shrimp.”
You’ll find that the average reality show has writers, a director, a producer, and the people being filmed are referred to as a “cast,” which is what actors in a dramatic or comedic production are usually called. The truth of the matter is that the loyal television viewer is being duped into believing that the traditional television shows that are scripted are phony and that “reality television” is gritty, hard-hitting real life television. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You want the truth? Most reality television shows are nothing more than boring, low-budget situation comedies or docudramas, featuring rigged game shows without a studio audience. They can be made in a hurry, are cheap to produce and, because the stars are either glorified nobodies or has beens that people have forgotten about, no one raises a fuss if the show has low ratings and has to be cancelled. When a reality show fails to live up to expectations, it simply vanishes and the conveyor belt in Hollywood churns out another one.
When a show like As the World Turns is cancelled, however, there’s bound to be a letter writing campaign from the fans. Sooner or later, the other networks will start circling the skies like vultures anticipating a meal. They’ll send some hot rising star reporter to interview the cast of the soon-to-be-cancelled show, and they’ll make sure to interview the show’s most vocal and weirdest fans. The lady with 45 cats who bakes cakes emblazoned with the likenesses of the show’s deceased cast members will get at least 10 minutes of screen time.
The networks love this cycle and refer to it as the circle of life, because it’s the ultimate win/win situation for them. They’re still in the business of storytelling, but they get to pretend that they’re not and can act like they’re offering the viewer something brand new that’s never been done before. Their competition gets to do various entertainment pieces on the demise of yet another beloved show; Mary Hart gets to do some interviews and everyone goes away happy. Except people like me who know the truth.
Everyone should know by now that the overwhelming majority of reality shows have scripts that are followed to the letter and are edited to enhance various situations for dramatic or comedic effect. Sound familiar? Like say, a soap opera or a situation comedy? But the main difference is that real professional actors and writers tend to belong to unions or guilds and usually tend to strike right around the same time that the professional baseball players do. That’s also a circle of life type deal.
Most of the actors on reality television shows, however, can barely string two coherent sentences together and are way too busy trying to find out which nightclub will let them in for free. They don’t have time for complex labor issues, and it’s because most of them are nuts. Quiet as it’s kept, having a production crew with cameras documenting your every move nonstop is far from glamorous and it just ain’t normal. One of the reasons most reality stars are nuttier than the average fruitcake is that being around that many cameras and not being named Zsa Zsa will drive the average person bonkers. Imagine the damage being done to the brain of someone desperate enough to believe that being on a reality show will jumpstart their career.
Now, I’m an average guy, and I don’t really require much when it comes to entertainment. Sure, I occasionally watch Masterpiece Theatre, but as I pointed out earlier, I also enjoy watching professional wrestling. Just because it’s wrestling doesn’t mean it’s not quality entertainment. Why, the production values, storylines and the performance of the wrestlers during Mid-Atlantic’s heyday dwarfs anything that modern reality television has to offer. Back then, professional wrestling or “wrasslin” as it was called by all the neighborhood mechanics, wasn’t sports entertainment. It was an honorable, noble profession in which former professional football players could make a name for themselves while entertaining millions of people. Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd and Wahoo McDaniels come to mind, as they excelled on both the gridiron and inside the wrestling ring.
It’s ironic that when I was a kid, there were loads people always yammering on and on about how professional wrestling was staged—how it was phony and it wasn’t real. They were the same people who couldn’t wait to let you know Santa Claus wasn’t real and that the Easter Bunny and Bugs Bunny weren’t related. I wonder where those people are now that the airwaves are saturated with “reality television.” How come they’re not shouting from the rooftops about how VH1’s Flavor of Love isn’t real? Also, I remember that MTV and VH1 used to be music channels. Where did all the music videos go? Did they stop making them, or does ABC’s news magazine 20/20 air them now?
I’ll say this: If you’re parked in front of a television set watching drivel like Jersey Shore or some other reality program that doesn’t have “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat squaring off for the heavyweight title, you don’t know what you’re missing. I also have to point out that Bugs Bunny and the Easter Bunny are indeed related. They’re third cousins. I hear the Easter Bunny may do a reality show featuring his stint in rehab as he tries to kick his addiction to marshmallow peeps.
As I pen this month’s article, I’m watching the premier episode of the new season of The Bachelor (subtitled: “On The Wings of Love,” because the “bach” is a pilot). I cringe as one of the ladies makes an embarrassingly forward move (says something to the effect of wanting to be his “co-pilot in life”) and surrenders her questionable character in order to tell him that she is really here for true love. Eck! I know it is awful, dreadful pseudo reality television garbage, but I can’t turn away. This is the television equivalent of peeking into the bearded lady’s tent at a carnival.
The gig is up with reality TV. I don’t think any viewer of sound mind could accept for one minute that any of the countless shows, spanning all genres of life, are, in fact, real in any way. One quick gander at the list of producers, story editors and directors on one of those shows is a tell tale sign that reality TV is about as authentic as a soap opera. This is a modern day circus side show, and there is no reason to expect reality TV to pack up and go away.
There are gag-reflux-inducing reality television shows that do little more for humanity as a form of art or entertainment than say, cock fighting or public executions. Those shows that seek to humiliate participants, glorify the worst aspects of human nature and exploit the self-esteem challenged, should find their way into the television history books. There is enough ACTUAL humiliation and exploitation in the world that we don’t need to contribute to it by creating more for the sake of entertainment.
It is also important to note that the newest genre of reality television, the celebrity reality, is equally as humiliating and exploitative. Any person famous for his or her actual merits, achievements or character should appreciate the recognition in their given field and continue down their chosen path. Football players don’t need their own show about how they are trying to find a woman. Singers don’t need cameras following them around as they go through rehab. Are we so bored and uninteresting that we’d rather watch a washed-up actor try to restart his career with a reality show than go out and create our own realities? Somewhere along the line, the American viewing public gave television producers the power to create celebrities out of thin air, like Geppetto made Pinocchio.
People are egocentric and narcissistic. Seeking notoriety, fame and infamy is not a human trait that is specific to our modern civilization. The Pharaohs wanted to live forever; the Greeks wanted to be worshiped as gods; and now we have everyday people wanting to be treated like Oscar winners because they appeared on a reality TV show.
I do actually like the game show-inspired types of reality TV. Globetrotting races, culinary challenges, design competitions, weight loss battles are what they seem and don’t need to try to be more. People on those types of shows actually exhibit some talent, creativity and skill as opposed to sitting around a hot tub getting drunk at the Jersey Shore.
Reality TV could actually have a positive effect on our culture, contribute to change in the world and create artistic snapshots of life during this time on Earth. There are some socially conscious shows that do seek to hold a mirror up to the viewer regarding difficult issues (drugs and alcohol abuse, poverty, environmental issues, etc.). There could be more humanitarian profiles and reality TV programs that show the very best of the human experiences—more documentaries about our successes as human beings, rather than inflated problems, weaknesses and faults as a civilization.
I write in full acknowledgment of the many lost hours of my life, more than I care to admit, sitting on the sofa watching strangers’ lives edited for content, enhanced with theme music and dramatized for entertainment. I recognize that it makes me a cog in the wheel of reality television’s power in our culture. Sadly, I know that in some small way I’ve participated in George Orwell’s vision of our time. I just hope that my TV isn’t looking back at me… Is Big Brother is watching?