Reality Check

By Jason Menard

Reality TV turned five years old this week, and while it’s still experiencing some growing pains, it’s certainly not the unruly red-headed stepchild that the critics make it out to be.

While the reality genre extends back into the 1970s, the modern era of reality began back on March 31, 2000 with the original cast of Survivor. At the time, reality TV was confined to MTV-Real-Worldeque shows, but Richard Hatch and his gang of merry – and backstabbing – men and women captivated a mass audience like never before.

Once again, a TV show became water cooler talk. People had their favourites, joined office pools, gathered at each other’s homes for Survivor parties. And each and every week people sat riveted to the actions of 16 average Americans stranded on Puala Tiga.

Just as quickly as Survivor-fever spread, so too did the critics of the genre proliferate. And, as more and more networks and shows jumped on the Reality TV bandwagon, the louder and more vociferous the expressed distain for the genre became.

As it stands now, people either love Reality TV or look down their noses at it. Worst of all, the criticism of this particular style of television extends towards its viewers’ collective intelligence. It’s been referred to as mindless and the signal that the end of culture is upon us.

But, essentially, Reality TV is no different than any other genre. The pseudo-intellectual snobs may look down on TV as a whole, but the fact of the matter is that TV is a significant component of our society’s lifestyle. Those that say that TV is not as worthwhile as theatre are missing the point that TV is simply an evolution of the theatre-going impulse. As a society, we have a need to see our lives reflected back to us, either in the form of comedy or drama. This is no different than the citizens of Ancient Greece going to hear speeches, or those who live in Shakespeare’s time heading to the theatre for the latest play.

It’s all about entertainment, and TV had brought the message to the masses, instead of the masses – and usually the affluent – having to travel to the message itself. It’s no worse or better than its predecessor, and it certainly doesn’t prevent you from picking up a book or going to a play from time to time. In fact, critics of TV are just as myopic in their view as those who only watch TV. Being well-rounded in today’s world means having an appreciation for all media.

While people feel free to lump the good and the bad of Reality into one big pile, they don’t see the need to do the same for scripted shows. It’s unfair to quality Reality shows like The Amazing Race, which pays respect to the cultures and unique aspects of each country it visits, to lump it in with The Bachelor or Britney & Kevin’s mind-numbingly painful show. But to neglect the good shows simply because of the abundance of bad in the genre is akin to throwing out the CSI’s because of the existence of Walker, Texas Ranger. They’re both police shows, but I don’t hear anyone using Chuck Norris as their standard-bearer for the cop drama.

In fact, scripted TV is as bad – if not worse – than its Reality cousin when it comes to recycling the same idea. At least Reality understands that having a unique twist is the only way to carve a niche in the marketplace. Scripted TV sees the success of one show and then heads right away to the photocopier with the latest script. Take a turn around the dial and how many times will you see the same three or four types of shows? How many comedies follow the formula of “take one heavy guy, add one hot wife, throw in a precocious kid or two, shake and serve”?

Don’t forget the sheer volume created by the Law and Order and CSI franchises – the TV market is saturated with police, legal, and investigative copycats. Add to that the cookie-cutter medical dramas and the argument that scripted drama is more valid than Reality flies out the window.

But reality is in danger of falling into that same rut. The makeover show concept is spreading like cockroaches. You can’t turn to any station without seeing someone’s home, restaurant, or life getting remade. It seems that literally watching paint dry has become a viable option. But obviously there’s a market for this type of repetition, just like there is for recycled situation comedies and formulaic dramas.

Reality isn’t even reality. It’s a heavily-edited version of reality that is fed to us in small bites. True reality would be cutting a hole in the wall between you and your neighbour’s house so that you can watch each other sitting on the couch in your boxers. But that’s not the Reality that people want. They want everyday people put into extraordinary situations, they want conflict, and – most of all – they want to be entertained.

Different is the key in all genres. Desperate Housewives succeeded because it was so unique to what was on the networks. And, those of us with cable know there’s an entire world of programming out there to satisfy everyone’s taste.

And, most importantly, you have the ultimate power in what you watch. The remote is in your hand – no one’s forcing you to watch something you don’t want to watch. Change the channel, find something new.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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