Art imitating Life: A look at Reality television
By Dick Rolfe, chairman – The Dove Foundation
Reality programs dominate our television viewing schedules, with names like “Growing up Gotti,” Punk’d,” “Survivor,” “Who’s Your Daddy?,” “The Contender” and “Wife Swap.”
And yet, when you think about it, this slice-of-life genre has been around since the earliest days of broadcast television. I define reality television as a story or segment involving real people in an extemporaneous, sometimes staged, but preferably unscripted situation, producing an unpredictable outcome.
Using that definition, one of the first reality television segments came in the 1950′s when television legend, Steve Allen launched his “man on the street” interviews. Steve would stop people at random on a street corner on live television, stick a microphone in their face, and ask them questions like, “If a candidate for President of the United States was an acknowledged heterosexual would you vote for him?” The spontaneous responses from people who didn’t listen carefully enough to the question were absolutely side-splitting. Jay Leno resurrected this format as “Jay Walking,” but his segments are carefully edited, thereby losing some of the spontaneity.
Reality television also includes sports, quiz and game shows, and of course, the news. Over the past several years, reality shows have deteriorated from pure entertainment into something more like prurient voyeurism.
These types of programs began with MTV’s “Real Life,” where kids 18-22 from different cultural backgrounds and worldviews were thrown together in an apartment for several weeks, with no rules of behavior… and let the cameras roll. “Real Life” was the forerunner to shows like “Big Brother,” “Joe Millionaire,” “The Bachelorette,” “Temptation Island” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.”
In the early days, Edward R. Murrow took us for intimate visits with famous celebrities and political leaders right in their homes in “Person to Person.” The concept was maintained with fairly high standards in recent years by Barbara Walters. Now, this genre has disintegrated into eaves-dropping on the weird lifestyles of “The Osborne’s,” “The Newly Weds: Nick and Jessica,” “Growing up Gotti,” and “Farah Fawcett.” Let us not forget “The Simple Life” with the ditzy Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. I was put off, but not surprised by this season’s newest addition, “Tommy Lee Goes to College.”
“Survivor,” “Amazing Race,” “American Idol,” and “The Apprentice” (both the Trump and Stewart versions) represent more refined, uplifting versions of this genre; only to be ruined by the likes of “The Contender,” and Paris’ dysfunctional family in “I Want to be a Hilton.”
According to Reality TV Magazine, Ted Nugent is set to debut a new competition-based reality show, “Wanted: Ted or Alive”, in November on OLN. The show is “City Slickers” meet real life. Where five urban sissies get the chance to prove they have what it takes to survive a week in the wilderness, competing against one another in challenges of survival and outdoor skills.
Improve your life:
Shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan” take individuals with physical deformities and offer them the surgical opportunity to remake themselves and return to a “normal” life. This can be a wonderful blessing for very deserving people. What concerns me is the emphasis these shows place on physical beauty. I have seen other contestants with unique, but not grotesque physical features, who are miserable unless they can be “beautified.” That reveals something profound; not about the people who want the makeover, but about the superficial society in which we live that made them feel inadequate in the first place.
A recent tragedy resulted from a proposed “Extreme Makeover” episode. The sister of a female contestant was filmed during pre-production saying how ugly the contestant was, and what a blessing the makeover would be. The show’s producer decided that the surgery was too complicated and recovery would take too long to meet their shooting schedule, so they rejected the contestant. According to claims by the family’s attorney, the contestant’s sister was so humiliated by what she said that she committed suicide. There’s a slice of real life the producers hadn’t planned on.
On the positive side, “Nanny 911″ and “Super Nanny” are two “home improvement” shows that really can change lives. They feature parents who are at the end of their rope and dominated by unruly little “monsters” who have taken over the household. In rides a British no-nonsense nanny with all the coping tools necessary to transform the little anarchists into brightly polished angels who hug their parents and happily go to bed at the appropriate time. The parents who volunteer for these episodes are to be congratulated for their willingness to expose their problems to millions of television viewers. One of the key themes of these shows is that corporal punishment is NOT the answer to establishing law and order in the home. Each episode offers disciplinary techniques that can benefit viewers as well as the subjects… that’s the redeeming value.
Hope and inspiration:
Two shows have recently entered the reality arena that offer hope and inspiration to deserving people who have faced, or are currently facing, personal dilemmas. These charity-driven programs go a long way toward improving the overall reputation of reality shows.
“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is addictive. It fills viewers’ hearts with joy, and their eyes with an occasional tear, while they watch as families are rescued from seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their lives. Each episode features one lucky family that is blessed by the generosity of ABC and Sears. Show host, Ty Pennington and his design team persuade hundreds of partners and volunteers to join the worthy cause. Depending on each family’s needs, homes are rebuilt, cars are provided, mortgages and medical bills are paid off, physical therapies and/or college tuitions are covered, and the list goes on. The extravagance of this program format is not as great as one might think. Considering that a single one-hour episode of a dramatic series costs around $1.2 – $1.5 million, reality shows are cost-effective forms of entertainment. Plus, the network and sponsors benefit from the feel-good image tied to these types of shows.
“Three Wishes” is a highly popular series launched this season. Hosted by Christian cross-over singing star, Amy Grant, it is the latest installment of the more uplifting reality shows. In this case, the citizens of an entire town are given the opportunity to tell their wishes to the show’s producers. Three of the most compelling stories are selected, and the wishes are granted. The beauty of each episode is that an the town’s people themselves get involved in granting the three wishes, thereby giving everyone a chance to contribute toward helping a needy friend or neighbor. The result is that an entire town is transformed by the goodness of its people.
So, what’s the next big idea for television? What do the networks (cable and broadcast) have in store for us next season? Who knows? One thing is certain. It will seem new and different at first. Then, upon closer examination, it will prove the adage, “what once was old is new again.”
Hmmm, I think I’ll go watch one of my latest DVD purchases; a collection of “The Show of Shows” from the 1950′s starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Now there’s reality television at its finest!
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