Getting real with reality TV

Michael Lucarz

With nearly every network promoting “reality TV” these days, it seems like the genre is quickly becoming the new pop-culture and media bandwagon onto which every executive is quick to hitch a ride. The only new thing, however, is the level of ridiculousness reality television has hit in recent months.

But even if you despise the mere thought of another quirky show that lets the viewer play voyeur for an hour each week, learn to love it because the end is nowhere near. In fact, it’s not even on the radar.

When a rational TV viewer can’t tell the difference between a reality show and the news, there is a serious problem. But is this even a problem at all? Television is completely dictated by public opinion, which leads to ratings, which in turn leads to big bucks for network executives and planners. It would be unfair to criticize anyone except the viewer, and it’s even harder for the average viewer to resist the shows. Although the substance may be at an all-time low, the trashy amusement offered nightly is at an all-time high and people love it. Channels have found a way to appeal to everyone in some way, and although the shows are merely reflections of contemporary mainstream tastes, maybe that’s the perverted genius behind second-rate shows that pander to the lowest common denominator of our intellects.

The sitcom as we know it is dead. Reality television is more scripted than primetime programming and there are no signs that it will return to its original form anytime soon. MTV’s entire 2004 schedule of programming revolves around “hidden” camera shows, with “The Real World: San Diego” spearheading the barrage and “Newlyweds” back for another run. Doesn’t a second season of any “reality” show contradict the fundamental idea behind it? Is it a coincidence that Randy of the San Diego crew will be involved in a date rape or that Jessica Simpson will harp on a new gimmick that tops the whole tuna/chicken of the sea fiasco? Doubtful. Nobody acts like themselves if there is a camera within a mile radius, let alone inside your own bathroom. Just because people don’t stare at the camera lens doesn’t mean they’re not acting. The casting for these shows doesn’t turn out scandalously entertaining by accident, and they’re going to be a surefire hit for networks because they know people will dig in. Most can suspend their own disbelief long enough for Paris Hilton to be a TV star and for Trista and Ryan’s nuptials to be the wedding of the century.

But even amidst this reality-bashing and negativity lies the basic idea that these shows are formulaic and work within the context of our pop-culture driven society. The shows offer viewers the chance to live vicariously through seemingly “ordinary” folk and don’t even take themselves too seriously. Even the most cynical critics spend time watching shows in order to break them down, and probably get a kick out of them like everyone else. Besides, Paris Hilton stealing a birdhouse and using it as a Mother’s Day gift for the woman she swindled is so unreal one can’t help but watch. And anyone can see how “Room Raiders” is appealing since we all have at least a few things in our rooms that would make the opposite sex grin.

Watching these shows will soon become inevitable, as the only alternative will be to turn off the tube completely. However, as the last six decades have shown that probably won’t happen. And most importantly, rest assured that this won’t be the last time a critic of reality TV will turn out to know more about it than the obsessed ones. After all, it’s only TV, but we like it.