Reality TV: Does Life Really Imitate Art?

by Ann Byle and Dick Rolfe

Memorial Day weekend was a revelation to me. I discovered the reality show American Pickers on the History Channel. As a long-time garage saler, I was immediately drawn to the tales of sifting through junk to find treasures.

Pretty soon my ten-year-old son was watching with me, then my husband. At one point, the entire family crowded around the TV to watch Frank and Mike climb through dirty barns and crowded warehouses looking for that one treasure that would make their efforts worthwhile. We were ready to begin digging through our junk for money-making treasures, drawn by the possibility of a cash payout.

What drew our attention to American Pickers is what draws huge numbers of viewers to the proliferating number of reality shows that fill cable and network television: fascination with others’ lives.

Reality television answers that need to step into others’ lives by living vicariously through them. It’s the art-imitating-life perception that draws us in. The problem comes when we become more than watchers; we become voyeurs, peering into others’ lives that are often unhealthy, dysfunctional, and sometimes downright crazy.

Is this where we want to put ourselves and our children? We must ask the tough questions when it comes to reality television: Is the program modeling physically and emotionally healthy living? Does it infringe on my moral and ethical boundaries? Is its content uplifting, or does it promote selfishness, violence, or promiscuity? Am I willing to turn off the television if the shows don’t meet levels of common decency?

The answers to these values-oriented questions are as diverse as the program topics that fall within the Reality Show genre’.

Let Me Entertain You: American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice draw millions of viewers eager to watch previously unknown performers break into the big-time. We love to see a truly talented person recognized for their gifts. On the other hand, much of the “realty” is focused train-wreck performances by sincere contestants with no other talent than to humiliate themselves so we can all enjoy a good laugh at their expense–all in the name of entertainment. And we wonder where our kids go to learn about bullying.

Quicker-Fixer-Uppers: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is the mother all fixer-upper shows with its complete home transformations. HGTV has shows such as Divine Design and Secrets from a Stylist. Homeowners can find reality shows on revamping single rooms to gardens, front porches to basements. Viewers can learn much, but can also get caught up in the “mine isn’t good enough” mentality.

Wild Adventures:  Survivor reigns supreme, but who doesn’t love Bear Grylls fighting his way out of wilderness spots on Man vs. Wild, and Jeremy Wade searching out the most dangerous fish in River Monsters? We can visit places we’ll never see and watch others do things we’ll never do. Care should be taken, however, in becoming discontent with where we are in life.

Something’s Cooking:  Hell’s Kitchen brings viewers to FOX, while foodies flock to the Food Network with its many programs such as Barefoot Contessa, Extreme Chef, and Aarti Party.  Viewers also enjoy programs such as The Originals with Emeril on the Cooking Channel.

Here Comes the Bride: TLC is full of shows such as Four Weddings, Say Yes to the Dress, and Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids, and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, plus Amazing Wedding Cakes on We TV. Bridezillas on WeTV is enough to send parents through the roof. Do we really want our daughters to model these demanding, self-centered, loud-mouthed wives-to-be?

All in the Family:  I think I know why “The Learning Channel” changed its brand to TLC. The lessons learned on this reality/variety channel are a mixed bag. Who doesn’t know the Gosselin family, thanks to Jon & Kate Plus Eight, later Kate Plus Eight? Viewers also enjoy the much healthier relationships seen on 19 Kids & Counting (left) with devoted parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, contrasted with the polygamy-inspired Sister Wives, all on TLC.

For alternative family life MTV offers the self-made, self-loving celebs Pauly D, Mike the Situation, JWOW and Snooki of Jersey Shore (right). This program has given new meaning to “extended family.”

Expect tears with the moving stories if Coming Home (Lifetime), which reunites military families. Key to healthy viewing in this category is watching the behavior modeled on each show.

Health and Beauty Aids: Physical and emotional health topics enter our homes thanks to programs such as Hoarders (A&E), The Biggest Loser (NBC), and Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition (ABC), but also shows such as The Doctors, which appears on local networks at a variety of times. Good information and healthy living takes precedence. Be aware, however, that this can also reinforce self-loathing for viewers who already have body image issues and are unable to hire personal trainers like the guests on these shows.

The CW Network is top of the line with America’s Next Top Model, featuring Tyra Banks, but fans also love Plain Jane on the CW, What Not to Wear on TLC, and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style on Bravo. Too much of a good thing, however, can backfire when viewers become obsessed with wearing/looking/weighing to Hollywood standards. I’ve taken heart, though, seeing less-than-perfectly-shaped women improve their style and self-image.

Over-the-Top: Some reality shows are crazy, bizarre, and just plain wild. World’s Dumbest (TruTV) is self-explanatory. Dog the Bounty Hunter (A&E) blends bad buys with dysfunctional family dynamics. Nail Files (TV Guide Channel) sheds new light on an LA nail salon. LA Ink (TLC) s a show featuring tattoo artist Kat Von D (left), current love object of Jessie James who was recently divorced from Sandra Bullock.

Parents Television Council, an education organization advocating responsible entertainment, sees one primary reason behind the growth of reality shows. “I think cost is the biggest factor behind the explosion. Scripted shows are expensive to produce with having to pay a staff of writers, production costs and the salaries of the stars,” said PTC spokesperson, Melissa Henson. “Reality shows are inexpensive to produce, and if a show fails the channel just pulls it and replaces it.”

Reality shows are here to stay. They are the go-to programs for content providers looking for original shows at relatively low cost. And, contrary to what most individuals will admit to, they are wildly popular!

The Nielson Company recently rated audience preferences for television program types. Reality television took first and third place with America’s Got Talent (Tuesday and Wednesday nights, CBS), fourth place with The Bachelorette (ABC) and ninth with Big Brother 13 (CBS).  Cable television saw Pawn Stars and American Pickers on the History Channel at third and fifth place, Swamp People in seventh (HIST), Storage Wars (AEN) in ninth place, and WWE Entertainment in tenth place (USA).

At The Dove Foundation, we continue to monitor movies, including movies made for television.  Our role is encouraging Hollywood to make clean entertainment while empowering families to make wise choices. The same moral standards that we use to evaluate movies apply to television programming.      

As humorist Erma Bombeck, once said, “Television allows us to be entertained in our living room by people we would never permit to set foot in our home.”

As parents and grandparents, we must be aware of one indisputable fact; we are being watched! Our little ones are learning to apply our standards in forming their worldview.  A favorite poem of mine begins, “I’d rather see a sermon, than hear one any day.”

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