Television is an entertainment medium. With the exception of ostensible news programs (let’s not overestimate the veracity of them: there is an array of reasons why the networks can be less than forthright in providing the “news” whether it is in a straight-up “news” show or so-called news “magazine”), what is provided by a network is entertainment, not slices of actual life regardless of the way it is presented. And it should be clear to everyone—though it isn’t—that whatever information/opinion you witness on the screen has been carefully packaged prior to distribution: the News Managers are very careful in what is put out there. Although someone might think that this sounds paranoid, that is far from the case. Rather, this manipulation that I am noting is nothing more than good business sense. Those who are in charge simply want to make sure that (1) the advertisers are happy and (2) the audience will keep coming back for more. And then (1) and (2) feed off of one another. And Broadcast (and cable) is all about the Business.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, there is a fascination among many people with so-called “reality” shows. Consider the term: “reality shows.” The notion of production and entertainment are baked right in. Is this reality? Not in any but a show-biz sense. They are nothing more than performances that can be cost-effectively created by production companies. That is, a fundamental characteristic of a “reality show” is that it employs nonprofessional performers. These aren’t actresses and actors, per se. They are real people, or so they are portrayed. They are evidently not people who have selected acting as a profession—or at least they are not actors who have achieved sufficient awareness among a wide-enough public such that they can’t charge the kinds of fees that known performers are able to charge. What their actual motives are, however, isn’t particularly clear: Some of these reality show actors may be wise enough to know that by acting as a “real” person on a “reality” show they may reach their goal of being a “legit” performer.
What is in any of this for the viewer is not particularly clear. While there might be something to be gained in the way of entertainment by watching people debase themselves in order to gain some ill-gotten loot (think of all of those things from Survivor to Fear Factor), this was perhaps best described by the term “jackass,” as cleverly used by the producers of the game show of that name. And I don’t think they were merely describing the participants.
One of the more dubious undertakings in this reality show genre is now in its 11th season: MTV’s “The Real World.” Let’s completely forget that the term “real” relates to authenticity. Let’s completely ignore the fact that this is reality as constructed by a production company that is as careful in determining who gets airtime as the producers on the no-less manipulative “Pop Stars.” Let’s completely buy in to the notion that this is “real” life.
A somewhat amusing revelation of the level of artificiality of “The Real World” appears in the Chicago Tribune Magazine (1/12/02). It is a piece in the Design section by Lisa Skolnik, who describes the “set/apartment” of this year’s model. Skolnik notes, “The bathroom alone was the size of most studio apartments, and admirably equipped with sleek, futuristic pedestal sinks, enormous shower stalls and suitably singular lighting.” Yep. Sounds real to me. One of the more interesting things Skolnik observes is that the sofa really wasn’t much of a place to place one’s posterior. Skolnik writes:
“The sofa looked great, but it was so tiny none of us could fit on it,” says Tonya, 21, a cast member from Walla Walla, Wash., who’s now back at college is Seattle. “It was really just a padded bench, and when you sat on it half your [rear] stuck out,” seconds Kyle, 22, a cast member from Lake Bluff and a recent Princeton graduate.
Sure, we all have bad furniture. But in this case, the furniture was actually designed. Not for the “real” people in the “real world” that the cameras were allegedly capturing, but for those people who apparently lack real lives by watching people who have no more authenticity than the cast members of “Ozzie and Harriet.” But wait a minute, the Nelsons were real—you know, Ricky and all—right?