- Created on Wednesday, 05 February 2014 14:25
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By SHEILA PRITCHARD
Reality television. It has crept into society as a guilty pleasure, a bad habit and an ever-growing phenomenon. Whether it’s a fascination with The Bachelor’s quest for love, wilderness rivalry in Survivor, Jersey Shore’s 24-hour party antics or young motherhood in 16 and Pregnant, reality TV dominates water-cooler gossip and even the way we speak and dress.
Many critics condemn today’s realty television for its lack of class and integrity. Many consider reality television to be an insult to society’s collective intelligence and the lowest form of entertainment. In this light, reality TV celebrates vulgar and reckless behaviour, elevates shallow personalities and promotes dysfunctional relationships while creating a voyeuristic show for millions of people.
Yet, audiences want more. But why? Maybe it is because reality TV is like passing a car wreck on the highway — we just can’t look away.
Dr. Jim Taylor, psychologist, speaker and author of the blog The Cluttered Mind Uncluttered, wrote an article titled Reality TV is NOT Reality.
“Why do so many people not only watch reality TV, but become so consumed by it that there are web sites, blogs, magazine and newspaper articles, and constant talk around the water cooler? One answer is vicarious stimulation. Reality TV is exciting when life is often mundane. It is interesting when life can be dull. Reality TV is dangerous when life can be all too secure. It is emotionally powerful — excitement, joy, embarrassment, shame — when life can be emotionally void. And many of us want it that way because we are loath to take risks and feel so deeply in our own lives.”
According to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), TV based on reality has been around in some form or another since the 1940s. The first reality show was broadcast in 1973, when PBS aired a 12-part documentary called An American Family. The show chronicled the daily lives of a family who lived in Santa Barbara, Calif. The series showcased marriage tensions that eventually led to divorce, as well as the eldest son’s gay lifestyle. MTV’s The Real World, first broadcast in 1992, was inspired by An American Family and is the longest-running reality program in MTV history. Survivor, the original of its reality competition kind, first aired in 2000, and has been renewed for a 30th season in 2015.
Angela Keeley, 27, who graduated with a master of fine arts degree from OCAD University in Toronto, has a friend whose family creates a reality hunting show. Keeley says as more reality shows are created, there are fewer that remain true to reality, which is questionable for society.
“[My friend’s] show is one of the few which does preserve the reality of their situation and actually attempts to instill learning through their show without also forcing people to accept their points of view. It is a reality show of pure interest. This opacity is by and large lacking in reality television overall.”
Keely says she dislikes the genre because it is “built on an illusion that is accepted as truth.”
“This propagates a lot of problems. There are issues with drawing the line between reality and fiction. The audience is not able to distinguish between scripting and honest reaction. This creates unrealistic dichotomies in our everyday lives — the people who can’t tell the difference end up emulating unhealthy characteristics that they have picked up from those shows. It is sort of like the worst possible distillation of celebrity culture.”
Marie Lassaline, 30, who studied film and new media at Ryerson University in Toronto, agrees with Keely. Lassaline says audiences that believe it to be candid television programming in which there are no writers, actors or scripts, should know it is far from the truth.
“I’ll walk out of a room if someone is watching a reality show. Reality. Really? I find reality TV so unreal that the only entertainment I get out of it is the laughter from contemplating how far from reality the show actually is.”
Like many reality TV viewers, Kalvin Craig, 24, of Niagara Falls, says he is aware that reality TV shows are scripted, but is a fan of the drama and “mindless” entertainment nonetheless.
“Most of the shows are not at all reality. Most are staged and manipulated by producers. I just love how easy they are to watch. No brain use required. Perfect for after a long day. There is seriously a reality show about everything now; it’s crazy.”
Craig says he believes much of the fascination about reality TV shows is because they can be identifiable and the representation of real people in real situations makes the “what would I do?” question more believable.
“A lot of people watch them and think, ‘That could be me.’ There is something about the idea of watching yourself or someone you know on television that is really interesting and very exciting.”