I hear a lot of talk about “Reality T.V.” Some of it is pretty favorable. There are die-hard fans of everything from “Survivor” to “American Idol” to shows involving trading spouses, eating gross things and videotaping households ‘live’ over a period of time. There are others who find the entire genre somehow oxymoronic (or, oven simply moronic) in that they feel that “Entertainment” and “Reality” are two different things – that they ought not be mixed and that we call the News is the only reality TV that should be called by that designation. While I am not a fan of Reality T.V., I think that it is important to point out that 1) it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new phenomenon and that 2) it is not unique to television.
When the citizens of Rome gathered to watch the Christians and lions battle it out, that was one of their forms of reality entertainment. I don’t think that they had T.V. at that time, though it seems now to have been around forever. More recently, I recall “Queen For A Day” on T.V. in the 1950’s along with other ‘reality oriented’ shows like the human icon Art Baker’s famous show, “You Asked For It.” (“If you like peanut butter – You’ll like Skippy.”) “American Idol” was preceded by several generations by “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” and talk T.V. and radio, in recognizable earlier incarnations, were around a half-century ago. In the general genre, time placement notwithstanding, there are one or two features in common. First and most troubling to some, is the element of voyeuristic sadism that is a part of a lot of it – Watch the contestants suffer on “Survivor” or anguish over critical comments on “American Idol.” Not as dramatic, admittedly, as the Romans watching fellow humans getting torn limb from limb by wild animals – then eaten by them, but they are, if you will, relatives in entertainment type. The audience is ‘entertained’ by watching bad and/or stressful things happen to other real people.
The other feature that both ancient and modern forms of ‘reality’ entertainment have in common is that they tend to be relatively inexpensive to produce. People who appear on Dr. Phil, are not paid well, nor are contestants on Survivor – unless, of course, they happen to be strong, vicious and dangerous enough to their competitors to win. Likewise in Rome, lions were never paid much and as for the Christians …. Well, surviving to face another giant man-killing beast on another day before another enthusiastically cheering and jeering crowd was about as rewarding as it got.
What HAS changed, I think, is that the entire genre has (to borrow a term usually applied to the spread of cancer throughout the human body) metastasized to the degree where it is now fairly described as having become ubiquitous. “Reality” and “Entertainment” have become more fully merged – or, if you prefer, ‘integrated.’ Whether or not this is a good thing or not will be the subject for future sociological studies. However, for the purposes of this brief article, I simply observe it and suspect that the obverse has actually happened to that which we have traditionally regarded as being ‘Real’, i.e., the news. It has become more oriented to entertainment than simply reporting of facts. This is evident not only on the multitude of TV “News Magazines” but also on the news, both local and national, on a daily basis.
Have we moved closer to becoming a culture where entertainment and reality are so integrally linked that there is no longer and useful or meaningful distinction between them? For one, I can only hope not.