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The Banality of Reality Television

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Just when you think the producers of reality television programs have reached the bottom of the well of poor taste, they manage to plunge even deeper into awfulness.

What follows is a completely arbitrary and unscientific selection of shows of the reality persuasion. If you are a big fan of the genre, my suggestion is you seek enlightenment elsewhere.

Full disclosure: On only one occasion have I watched reality television. That was a few episodes of Survivor solely because the show had a rather appealing character with my name—Rupert. In the interests of proper journalism, and for the purposes of this article, I have watched numerous clips of the genre. I begin my therapy next week.

Reality Television Is Not Reality

The fiction on which reality TV is based is that a group of people are gathered and cameras record their spontaneous interactions. This is complete make believe. Most reality TV shows are structured, otherwise they would end up looking like Andy Warhol's 1964 film Sleep that shows his friend, John Giorno, sleeping for six hours.

Toronto psychiatrist, Dr. Marcia Sirota calls reality TV “junk food for our brains . . . It celebrates stupidity, boorishness, selfishness, spitefulness, and revenge. It panders to our basest urges and impulses, titillating us but providing empty calories.”

What producers feel the audience needs to be fed is drama and the producers are right. As writer Ilisa Cohen has pointed out “Insults, temper tantrums, selfishness, gross behavior, and plain old stupidity—these are the main ingredients for most of today’s reality TV shows. Guess who is watching them? Millions of viewers just like you.”

A jumbled mess of nothing.

A jumbled mess of nothing.

The Strange Allure of Reality Television

If reality TV is so bad, why do people in the millions watch the shows? Numerous self-described experts put forward explanations for why reality shows are so popular, the most convincing of which is escapism.

Our lives are so humdrum that there's a vicarious thrill attached to somebody winning a lot of money, or losing a lot of money, or having a hissy fit in front of the camera.

The programs are mildly entertaining even if they are a distortion of reality and a good way of postponing chores such as cleaning out the garage.

Perhaps, we are all voyeuristic to some extent and we enjoy peeking into the lives of others, while exhibitionists enjoy having a huge crowd watching them. It helps us realize that our own lives might not be the train wrecks we suspect them to be.

A study at Ohio State University found certain characteristics to be more prevalent in reality TV viewers than the general public:

  • “Fans of both Survivor and Temptation Island tend to be competitive—and that they are more likely to place a very high value on revenge than are other people."
  • “Fans of the shows are much more likely to agree with statements such as, 'Prestige is important to me' and 'I am impressed with designer clothes' than are other people."
  • “The message of reality television is that ordinary people can become so important that millions will watch them. And, the secret thrill of many of those viewers is the thought that perhaps next time, the new celebrities might be them.”
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The Real Housewives

Give it up for The Real Housewives, a franchise that started in 2006 and refuses to die a respectable death. It chronicles the lives of upper-class women in numerous cities going about their daily lives; you know, like cleaning the toilet, scraping burnt scrambled eggs off the pan, or ironing hubby's shirts.

The women in the show are carefully selected with glamour, botox, and big hair seeming to be the looked-for attributes. The ability to have a potty mouth when called for is a plus. Oh, and the cleavage, nearly forgot the importance of the cosmetically enhanced cleavage.

Each season follows half a dozen “real” housewives on yachting trips, driving around in high-end cars, attending charity fundraisers, the sort of thing that is the daily routine of al real housewives. The low point of each season is the dinner gathering when all the women get together to trash talk each other. Sometimes, a glass of wine gets tossed at someone.

Writing for The Observer, Elizabeth Day comments, “The Real Housewives is the mother lode of so-called 'structured reality'—a television strand based on real-life relationships where producers will occasionally shape or encourage certain storylines for dramatic effect.” Occasionally?

And, here's someone else who is not a fan, feminist Gloria Steinem: She says of Real Housewives, “It is women, all dressed up and inflated and plastic surgeried and false bosomed and incredible amount of money spent, not getting along with each other. Fighting with each other. It is a minstrel show for women. I don't believe it, I have to say. I feel like it's manufactured, that the fights between them are manufactured and they're supposed to go after each other in a kind of conflicting way.”

The Kitchen as Battle Ground

Julia Child began a 10-year run on the Public Broadcasting Service in 1963 teaching people how to cook the French way. She never swore, threw utensils, spat out food (at least on camera). She simply demonstrated cooking methods.

Her presentation was unaffected, straight forward, and filled with enthusiasm for her subject. Production values were minimal with just a couple of camera angles as the audience watched her create boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin, because that was what the program was about. Occasionally, things went wrong and they were always carried off with good humour.

Now, we have ill-tempered and foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay. He is what is known as a “celebrity chef,” that is someone who can cook and his some sort of shtick to go along with their kitchen skills.

Ramsay stands out from the crowd by being abusive and unkind to those around him in his appropriately named Hell's Kitchen show. The premise is that contestants vie for staff jobs at one of Ramsay's high-end restaurants.

Entrants are given tasks to complete that are then presented to the great man who as likely as not will spit the first mouthful on the floor followed by a string of expletives. Or, the dish may be thrown on the counter or garbage pail accompanied by f-bombs.

There is rarely any constructive criticism from which the aspiring chef can learn. Well, it's not about that is it; it's all about the public humiliation of lesser persons and there seems to be quite an appetite for that among the general public.

Of course, as Gordon Ramsay explodes in anger, his contestants are encouraged to do likewise and the whole sorry business descends into an ugly spectacle.

Food writer Carey Jones doesn't like the show. She doesn't like it one little bit. She says “the contestants, who really should be called characters, play into it, too—all trying to one-up the others, to become the nastiest, most vulgar, most extreme competitor Hell's Kitchen has ever seen. They try to out-Ramsay Ramsay, who is already unpleasant enough for an entire network's worth of television. It's an arms race of foulness.”

Meat Markets

Numerous reality shows are sold around the concept of romance, although the producers know the content is more about sex and betrayal. The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchises are cringe-worthy writ large. Himbos and bimbos are thrown together in unnatural settings such as a mansion or beach resort and the cameras start rolling.

The plan is that a man will pick one woman out of those in the pen (The Bachelor) or a woman will pick one man out of the herd (The Bachelorette). Along the way, there are fights, tears, endearments, recriminations, and back-stabbing as contestants jostle for position.

Meanwhile, the dialogue is not enough to keep the mind alive. The culmination of the cattle call is for a couple to become engaged and go off into the sunset blissfully in love.

A few couples have married and entered into long-term relationships, most have not.

The bachelor/ette product is enormously successful—as many as eight million viewers per episode and almost $100 million in advertising revenue per season.

Other producers took note and gave us Love Island, Ex on the Beach, Coupled, in which shirts, gowns, and inhibitions are shed. The screen is filled with jiggling flesh and taught muscles but, of course, it's all about the personalities.

Yes. It's Definitely all about Personalities and Has Nothing to Do with Physical Attributes.

But, even skimpy bikinis were too much for the producers of Dating Naked. The plot is simple: Man meets woman, man and woman take all their clothes off, nude man and woman go salsa dancing or zip-lining—as you do. The show was cancelled in 2016 after three seasons; bad ratings said the producers.

So, there is a tiny glimmer of hope that reality television has hit rock bottom. Nah.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1973, An American Family burst on the scene to be credited with being the first television reality show. However, traces of the genre can be seen much earlier. It was intended to chronicle the upper-middle-class Loud family in Santa Barbara, California. What it documented was the break up and divorce of the parents as Pat complained about Bill's cheating.
  • Dr. Bryan Gibson is a psychologist at Central Michigan University. In a study, he found that people who watched reality television containing plenty of relational aggression, such as Real Housewives, became more hostile towards others.
  • The American journalist H.L. Menken wrote “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

Sources

  • “What Was the First Reality TV Show?” Issy Sampson, The Guardian, August 10, 2020.
  • “Scott Dunlop: 'You Can Hate The Real Housewives but You Can't Ignore it'. ” Elizabeth Day, The Observer, February 16, 2014.
  • “Is Reality TV Messing With Your Head?” Ilisa Cohen, Scholastic Choices, November 2012.
  • “Why I Hate 'Hell's Kitchen.' ” Carey Jones, seriouseats.com, August 10, 2018.
  • “Why Real Housewives Is Good for Feminism, According to Roxane Gay.” Chris Harnick, eonline.com, April 22, 2019.
  • “Why America Loves Reality TV.” Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, Psychology Today, June 9, 2016.
  • “Viewer Beware: Watching Reality TV Can Impact Real-Life Behavior.” National Public Radio, August 24, 2014.
  • “Reality TV Watching Lowers IQ, Increase Rudeness.” Joanne Richard, Toronto Sun, August 19, 2015.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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