The reality show phenomenon may be such that on some nights there seems to be nothing but this garbage on, but it is hardly new; since the movie camera was invented by William Dickson and stolen by Thomas Edison, people have been looking to strike it rich quick by becoming an instant celebrity. The primary difference between the dream factory process toward making these stars and the route through reality TV isn’t even the glamour. Most contestants on these shows, while perhaps not the equivalent in looks of most movie stars, nevertheless are typically in better shape and are more attractive than the average viewer. Lacking physical attractiveness, it is a sure bet they will be either charismatic or eccentric in a way that draws in viewers; such as parading around in the nude at all times. Reality shows are the cultural equivalent of a shadow play in which the features are recognizably human, but it is impossible to find a soul. Even the very name reality TV is ironic.
Despite the titular claims to the contrary, reality show contestants never actually “survive” anything and viewers never act as “Big Brother” controlling the fates and guiding the destinies of those who are willing to sacrifice all dignity in exchange for a prize at the end. Reality shows are game shows, pure and simple. The metaphor may be understandable, but in fact even that bears precious little resemblance to reality. Everything is hyperreal in a reality show; they are like watching the Gong Show as scripted by Jean Baudrillard. Make no mistake, reality shows are scripted, as well as edited for effect. In fact, there is incredibly little technical dissimilarity between the production of drama or a sitcom and a reality show; all contain actors of admittedly disparate levels of talent acting out a preconceived “plot” and interacting not with characters so much as stereotypes. This problematic approach involving the scripting and editing manipulates the viewer into believing that what he is watching is unscripted reality and viewers naturalize this behavior into their own authentically real life. Soon enough people at work are competing in a new arena that involves acting as disgraceful and petty in their commitment to competitive advantage as the people on their favorite reality show without realizing that to do so makes no more sense than going to work and acting like Homer Simpson or Dr. McDreamy.
It is this competitive aspect of reality shows that is more troublesome from a cultural standpoint. These shows are, in fact, metanarratives in the purest sense; they are more about their own carefully constructed reality than they will ever be about authentic reality. In essence, reality shows present an awkward metanarrative on a hyperreal situation that is struggling to prove itself an authentic presentation of society rather than a re-presentation of society such as a movie or play. These contestants also eagerly search for opportunities to turn themselves into pure commodity on at least two levels. They are in the game for the money, and they are in the game for the slim chance they can extend their brief slice of fame into a career along the pathetic lines of a Danny Bonaduce or a Gary Coleman.
The shadow play that reality television compares to can be traced all the way back to the cave in Plato’s allegory. Millennia passing by has failed to undo the intrinsic inability of people to judge adequately between what is reality and what is mere flickering of images on a cavern wall. In watching reality television show contestants act through their scripted scenarios it becomes clear that most of them have been fooled like the prisoners in the cave into not recognizing the difference between authentic re-presentation of reality, but that may only be expected since many of these contestants have now grown up over the last decade confusing the reality presented in these shows with the reality others live out in re-enactments of the behavior they’ve learned from watching these very same shows. One can only hope that when the cameras are turned off, the winner is revealed and the contestants leave their fabricated simulacrum of an island or communal home that they understand the reality they are stepping back into is nothing at all like the “reality” they have posed for on television. But just as the dwellers inside Plato’s cave walked hesitantly and perhaps disbelievingly into the bright light of the real world, so too it is possible that those who appear on reality shows are still not quite convinced what is outside the studio door is actual reality.
Most people would consider it the ultimate in foolish gullibility to confuse the reality of a game show situation with real life, yet aren’t they actually a perfect metaphor for the media climate that exists today? The mainstream media has rejected their role as the guardians of truth and the police of the government, becoming instead a tool of the prevailing power that plays an enormous part in reproducing the capitalist ideology. When one looks at a press conference by Pres. Bush and watches as his assertions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq go unchecked and unquestioned, is there really any philosophical difference between accepting the authenticity of that world and the authenticity of the world that exists in the confines of a reality show? Society has transformed into the a thing that is partly like the house of Big Brother or the island of Survivor and the reality that is accepted is just as scripted, false and open to a multitude of interpretations.
The population of the western world has devolved into a passive audience with their button constantly on the remote, ready to flip from one unsatisfying depiction of reality to the next in the fervent hope of coming across one that is exciting and endows their life with meaning and import. The scripted reality that is mostly fake but contains just enough elements of authenticity to seem real has become the perfect metaphor for a society that expresses genuine concern about the potential consequences of media control, while having no access to respond to that fear. Far from empowering the viewer-much less the contestant-what these shows ultimately accomplish is the act of dehumanizing society so that the lowest common denominator is held up as the greatest possible accomplishment.