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
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
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
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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