Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered existence, but my life is nothing like those of my “reality” TV counterparts.
I can’t remember the last time I allowed myself to be strapped down into a coffin-like enclosure so that hundreds of rats could crawl all over me. (It’s just as well, since this is one instance in which reality really does bite.) Though I’ve been known on occasion to eat bacon, I’ve never actually slaughtered a pig or felt the need to smear blood on myself in some sort of tribalistic ritual (the closest I’ve come is reading the Lord of the Flies). And while I consider myself to be somewhat adventurous and like to try new foods, I’ve never eaten live crickets, and confess this is one delicacy I’ll give a pass (though I do wonder if Martha Stewart has a good recipe).
But such is reality as seen on TV and experienced on the Internet these days. (The person who coined the term needs to either get a dictionary or some serious counselling.)
But misnomer or no, shows such as Fear Factor, Big Brother, Survivor and Temptation Island abound.
And there’s no shortage of contestants who for sums sometimes as paltry as $50,000 (I don’t care if that is in U.S. dollars) are willing to be dragged through the mud by galloping horses, eat rats and live with a bunch of manipulative, back-stabbing, self-absorbed strangers who go on incessantly about their feelings and occasionally pick up knives. (Though given the choice, I’d take a knife to my throat over filet o’ rat any day.)
It seems like there’s a new “reality” show every week, and it’s no wonder. These shows are cheap, come with a ready-made Internet tie-in bound to drive viewers online and an audience that feeds on suffering. They don’t require scripts, paid actors, creative talent or even a moral conscience to produce.
And if people’s lives are endangered, well, that just means higher ratings and more hits. The pig-killing incident on Survivor may have raised the ire of animal rights activists, but to the shows producers, it only meant lots of free publicity (and this is definitely one case in which, unfortunately, there is no such thing as bad publicity). And you better believe Big Brother 2‘s ratings went up after Justin Sebik held a knife to Krista Stegall’s throat. Nothing like the possibility of seeing someone’s life in danger to attract a viewer’s attention.
And let’s not forget that this type of programming has already claimed one life – one contestant committed suicide after being kicked off a European reality show. That made no difference to network executives who decided to bring shows such as Big Brother and Survivor to North America.
The Internet has played no small role in the proliferation of these shows, and will likely contribute to their growing popularity and abundance. As broadband becomes available and TV stations that are geared especially for the ‘net emerge, programmers desperate for inexpensive content will choose to tap into this society’s voyeuristic disposition. (Though, personally, the only thing I can think of that would be worse than watching a half hour of the painfully-slow, mind-numbingly boring and intellectually devoid Big Brother on TV would be paying extra to watch it 24/7 over my sluggish connection on my ready-to-be-put-out-to-pasture computer.)
I guess I just can’t handle reality.