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Tom Alderman

Tom Alderman

Posted: February 13, 2008 03:00 PM

Shame TV: Why Humiliation Sells on American Idol and Others


If a truth gun were put to our collective TV heads asking why we watch American Idol, and The Apprentice, the answer might be: we like watching people being humiliated. If that's true -- then how come? There is a sub-set of Reality TV that can only be described as Shame TV because it uses humiliation as its core appeal. Sure, talent shows like American Idol have been around since radio starting with The Original Amateur Hour with Major Bowes. What is different about Idol is that this talent search is more about the losers than the winners. Like its forerunners, we do cheer for the powerful singer. But aren't we really waiting for Simon, Paula and Randy to rip into some over-eager, untalented hopeful who actually volunteered himself for public degradation?

We root for the neo-executives on The Apprentice. But aren't we really waiting for the last three minutes when the strange man with the orange-colored, vinyl hair utters "Your fired" through his pouty lips?

We can't seem to get enough of these debase-me-now shows. To this brand of Shame TV is now added the remarkable, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, a one hour plunge into human abasement on VH1. The show says it chronicles "... the dramatic, unscripted real life experiences of a group of actual celebrities as they make the life-changing decision to enter themselves into a drug, alcohol and addiction treatment program with the sincere desire to achieve true rehabilitation and recovery."

To make sure we get the 'redeeming value' part, VH1 surrounds the show with visuals that ask viewers to "Watch and Discuss." Sure, but what we're liable to discuss is the decomposition of former Taxi TV star, Jeff Conaway, as he quivers with delirium tremors, shrieks with withdrawal pain and screams obscenities at his fellow rehabbers. Or we'll discuss a former porn star and her friend's demonstration of their considerable flatulence and belching skills while waiting for group therapy. On the Richter scale of humiliation, this show is a 9.5.

To be sure, we feel Dr. Drew Pinsky's compassion as he tends to the healing process of these unfortunates. The show producers can claim they serve the public interest by showing how the addiction treatment process works. Of course, they could also put the show on WebMD.com, or some appropriate health outlet, for those specific folks who really need it. But they put it on TV. This show is entertainment, not a documentary. VH1 is interested in our eyes and ears. They know we are there to watch the train wreck, not the clean-up.

The first mystery is why so many people are willing to debase themselves in front of all of us? As for Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, it's an extraordinary level of self-abasement, says Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D, Senior Editor at "The Journal of Media Psychology." It's being "pathetic as a career move, like grabbing onto a sewer pipe" he says about Celebrity Rehab's cast list.

Okay, that may explain the folks who go on these shows. But how do we account for why millions of us watch them? It's social comparison, explains Dr. Elliot Aronson, psychologist, Professor Emeritus, University of California at Santa Cruz and author of Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me - Why We Justify Bad Decisions. We evaluate ourselves in comparison with other people. "It's a balm to our self-esteem," he says. He believes we look at the loser contestants on Idol saying I'm better than that. I would never do that and look what happens to people who do that.

So we watch to feel better about ourselves -- got it. But there is a more disturbing angle to this and it's name is 'schadenfreude', meaning we take pleasure from someone else's misfortune -- which is why slipping on a banana peel gets laughs. Clinical psychologist Dr. Geoffrey White, a Los Angeles-based consultant to Reality TV producers, calls this the current zeitgeist, the spirit of our times. In times like these, he believes, when Americans are feeling unsettled, uncertain and powerless, there is comfort, indeed enjoyment, in seeing other people suffer. We don't feel so alone. "Shame is the most disturbing emotion. We can identify with the people doing the humiliation without feeling responsible for it," he explains. Watching others being humiliated, it would appear, is helpful -- to the watchers

None of us wants to believe we actually like seeing others humiliated. That's not part of our supposedly compassionate belief systems. Yet, our culture is shaped by the content of our media and our media is shaped by the content of our culture, so how do we account for this coarsening of our culture, this growth of Shame TV? Is this really the true spirit of our times?