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Richard Laermer Headshot

Why Reality TV Will Soon Die a Healthy Death

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Besides writing the stories that Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck and A Scanner Darkly were all based upon, Philip K. Dick was also known for his own reality-bending brand of social commentary. "Reality is whatever refuses to go away when I stop believing in it" serves as a particularly poignant observation in this age of reality TV inundation. And while Dick's definition of reality still holds water in this current milieu, with hit RTV shows cropping up with names like the Surreal Life, and the canned spontaneity of shows like Big Brother 8 and The Hills it begs the question, is there anything "real" about RTV at this late stage?

It started off innocently enough with Candid Camera and all those crazy pranks. (When is that coming back?) Back then we were swept away by the talent show tide of the 1950's, culminating in spectacular reality based competitions like the Miss America Pageant in 1954. But after, things started to get weird. Our fascination with observing the really real began to take a darker turn with the 1973 PBS reality series The American Family that depicted a typical nuclear family in the US going through a divorce.

Then it wasn't too long after that we started to savor the camcorder feel and gripping cinema verite of programs like COPS and America's Funniest Home Videos in the late 80's and early 90's. RTV as a formula was set to change irrevocably with the 1992 premier of the genre's mega-hit The Real World, on what was once Music Television.

Whereas before the focus may have once been slices of life or competition, this one just captured drama of strangers living together and in some cases slapping one another or engaging in risque acts. RTV has morphed into a veritable circus of voyeurism ever since that first show in downtown New York. And though our captivation has only mushroomed since, it's safe to say that the lines demarcating what passes for the "reality" element of this genre have gone completely haywire.

In the instance of the competition/game show sub-group of the RTV genre, the emphasis isn't so much on reality per se, but on the drama resulting from the game itself. Constituting what Steve Burley of TVGameShows.net has coined "game operas." The words of Survivor creator Mark Burnett when he spoke to The Age are telling when it comes to the alleged realism of RTV: "I tell good stories. It really is not reality TV. It really is unscripted drama."

Though Burnett's un-staged candor explains away the giant leap required for the average American to take a bunch of strangers being flown to Fiji to compete for cash and prizes as anything resembling "reality," it doesn't answer the question as to why this passes for reality and not another scripted show. Nothing on Big Brother is real. The whole of the dance floor at Dancing With the Stars has been prearranged by a skill that is bizarrely judged -- and is merely just a drama with dancers .

Parenthetic point here: According to ABC.com [I corrected the grammar]: "if couple A, B and C receives 38, 26 and 14 points from the judges, we calculate what share these points represent of the total awarded by the judges on the In this case the judges gave 78 points in total, and each couple's share of 78 points breaks down as follows: 38= 48.72% of 78, 26= 33.33% of 78, 14= 17.95% of 78. Let's suppose that when the public votes are tallied, each couple has the following shares: A= 20%, B=40%, C=40%." Geesh.

Borrowing from the words of Philip K. Dick: "Hey, gang, what is really real?"

Insight is derived from examining what facet of genre has persisted most prominently over the years. Comparing RTV's oldest example, Candid Camera, with the more recent and defunct Punk'd, it becomes obvious that despite their varying context, the premise of these shows are startlingly similar--capture raw reaction of people in funky situations.

When we look across the spectrum of RTV with this premise in mind, we begin to see a picture painted not with real but with the unvarnished human emotion.

Having grown bored with watching scripted (and pretty) actors acting out dramatic situations, we are suffering from post-modern ennui and indulge in a kind of communal voyeurism. Drawn by actors no more, but rather to the spectacle of watching others feel something we are being told is "real" and "caught," we can now be the great actor and so the competition is really us versus the Hollywood crew.

Face it, truly fabulous actors are few and far between (not to mention expensive) so it is no wonder that we gravitate toward RTV in the same way that we rubberneck on the highway. And the Mark Burnetts of the broadcasting world are more than happy to keep the pathos coming our way since RTV eliminates the need to pay actors, though to be sure expensive writers are definitely making up the scenarios.

As long as we stay glued to the RTV monster and profit margins stay fat, reality will keep on trending the way of the Dodo.

For more like this, but nothing to do with Reality TV, see Laermer.com and new book 2011: Trendspotting from McGraw-Hill (Yeahwhatever.com).