Ourselves and Reality Television

Let’s face it, even if we don’t watch reality television, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore. One of my ex-colleagues called to rant about his wife. He can hardly enjoy a good dinner with her. She’s hooked on reality television shows; so are his two young adult children. Yes, television reality programs enrapt us, while show hosts transform our gardens, our houses, bodies and faces right in front of us. The more extreme the makeover, the more we like it, the more we enjoy the show. We watch intently, while we think about ourselves. If only our dull lives are different, if only our modest apartments become our dream home, if only we can cook exotic food. Our ‘ifs’ overflow. Would our self-esteem be high? Would society be more accepting? Would we love ourselves more?

What is reality television? It is a genre of television programming in which events or destiny of ‘real life’ people are followed. There are three main types of reality television program. In the first, the viewer and the camera are passive observers following people going about their daily activities. In the second type, hidden cameras are rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. The reactions of the passers-by can be funny or at times bizarre to watch, but also revealing truths about the human condition. The third type is called the ‘reality game shows,’ where the participants are filmed intensively in an enclosed environment while competing to win a prize. But what makes these more like ‘reality television’ than other game shows is that the viewing public usually plays an active role in deciding the outcome through a vote.

For all the hype of reality homeland project free tv, the basic premise of these programs isn’t new at all. These are tales as old as humankind and not a new phenomenon at all. Once upon a time it was the fairy godmother with magical powers who caused the miracle to happen, revealing the servant girl as the princess she always was or the kind princess who kissed the warty toad to free a real prince. Today, the reality television host or the program plays this same role, exercising the magical powers that only the show sponsors can provide.

What drives reality television? Human attributes, including fear, anxiety and desire. In terms of the ‘real people’ involved, two factors immediately come to mind: money and fame. The money part is obvious motivation. As to the fame part, the shows have made instant celebrities of ordinary people.

In the world of reality television, we are given no room to doubt that the dramatic transformations we are witnessing could not have been achieved without the intercession of the host and program team. Let’s also bear in mind that producers can control the format of the show, as well as manipulate the outcome. Tears of joy and gratitude flow readily. But what happens next?

In fairy tales, this is the point at which some version of ‘happily ever after’ ends the story poignantly and saves us from considering any murky emotional and psychological complexity. Beauty, goodness and happiness are consistently blended. How about reality television? Well, it stays faithful to the format. The issue then is not with reality television itself, but whether reality television is real enough. Away from the TV screen, appearances aren’t everything, and outer changes don’t necessarily replace inner truths.

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