A Few Thoughts on Reality TV

On weekend mornings I usually find my two girls up early watching episodes of a reality TV show called Sugar Rush. They have seen every episode and they know the winner of each one, but they still watch it, seemed glued to it in fact. Maybe it’s all of the confections the contestants make during the course of the show. In any case, it made me think about reality TV and I jotted some thoughts down in my Field Notes notebook. Here are the one’s I can still make out.

  • “Reality” TV is obviously a marketing gimmick. None of the TV shows I’ve ever seen come to what I think of as reality. How often are you followed around all day by a full production crew?
  • The term obviously didn’t go over well from the start. People started calling it “unscripted.” Then other people said that it really was scripted. Who knows?
  • There is a term for reality TV that I think fits perfectly. No, not junk, don’t be cynical. The term I was thinking of was “game show”. How is reality TV just not another form of game show? Game shows are relatively unscripted. There is usually are usually winners and losers.
  • Reality TV is really nothing new, even when it doesn’t feel like a game show. People my age will remember shows like Battle of the Network Stars which were the 1970s version of reality TV.

Most reality shows have a tell when they aren’t working out very well. If the “story” being told (people cooped up in a house, or stranded on an island) isn’t compelling enough, they manipulate the audience by dragging things out. The do this even on a show like Sugar Rush. When the contest is down to the last two teams, and they need 2 out of 3 votes to win, that third tie-breaking vote is inevitably dragged out over a commercial break. “My vote goes to…” the judge says, and then the camera goes around and shows everyone’s face. Cut to commercial, then repeat, drag it out a little longer, before finally revealing the winner.

Storytelling that requires that kind of manipulation is on life-support.

Consider, say, a baseball game. I suppose, stretching the matter, you might think of sports as reality TV. It is, after all relatively unscripted (boxing and wrestling excluded, of course). Imagine now, if you will, the following scenario unfolding on your television screen.

“Two on, two outs, two ball, two strike, and the Yankees are down two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Jeter digs in at the plate. Here comes the pitch!” We watch as Jeter makes solid contact and the ball is rising high, but is it enough? Runner are advancing with two out. “Did he get enough?” the announcers say. Then we cut to a commercial and when we return, it is to a replay of what we just saw, but this time, we’ll see the outcome.

Would any sports fan in the world tolerate that?

That, my friends, is the problem with reality TV.


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