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Reality TV -- Rewarding Bad Behavior

Posted: 07/16/2013 4:40 pm

It used to be if you were 16 and pregnant you would get in trouble. Now you get a reality show. You get arrested on TV after a drunken binge and become an instant millionaire. Compromise your morals and make a sex tape and it may get you enough attention to land a lucrative fragrance deal. What kind of message does this send to young people? Why is it that television networks today feel the need to reward bad behavior? The simple answer is increased competition for ratings and money. But celebrating stupidity by mainstream media is not morally justified.

Now hold on a second here? I know some people may think that I, Tom Green, should be the last guy to write a diatribe against reality TV. Isn't Tom Green the guy who humped a dead moose? Isn't he the guy who painted pornography on his parent's car? Yes, I worked hard to put together an experimental show on a budget of zero. But I was not being exploited by anyone. I was in charge.

It wasn't that long ago that there were only three television networks, no cable TV, and no Internet. There was simply no need to go negative. But now with the media being fragmented into an infinite number of outlets, competition for eyeballs is fierce. And the easiest way to win the competition for eyeballs in the digital age is to broadcast bad behavior. People like watching train wrecks.

Things were better before. In 1980s I discovered Late Night with David Letterman. It was on one of the 13 cable TV channels. They didn't have 25 late night talk show hosts trying to be the most outrageous. There was the likeable television genius Johnny Carson, and his mad genius counterpart Dave. There was nothing else crazy on TV every night and there was no Internet. The only place you could see electronic images on a screen were on the few TV channels and at the movie theater.

Also in the 1980s the VCR was born. Now we could rent movies at the video store and watch them at home. This was exciting and new to be able to watch feature films at home whenever we chose. At first we would watch mainstream blockbusters. But every once in a while somebody would show up with a VHS tape of something really crazy. There was this one video series that started getting passed around at school called Faces Of Death. This was mostly found footage of real deaths that had been collected over the years. It was mostly shot on really bad 16 mm film, which in a way made it a lot creepier. People getting attacked and killed by bears, parachutes that didn't open, alligator attacks, people getting shot in the head, assassinations, and more. These tapes started getting passed around in the seventh grade. All the kids were talking about Faces Of Death, although we were the last family on my block to get a VCR so I had to wait another year before I got to see.

We were fascinated by Faces Of Death because we wanted to see real shit. Finally this was some real shit that wasn't edited and manipulated by the censors. Before the VCR we had been unable to see this kind of honesty on our TV screen. We laughed when we watched TV shows like MASH and Who's the Boss, but we knew they weren't real. We wanted to see something real that gave us some insight and truth about being human.

And then technology continued to change. Cameras got smaller and more affordable. Normal people could now afford to make videos. And more and more outrageous things began to appear. Real people started filming real things. Some people, like me, started filming really crazy and ridiculous things. Eventually the television networks got the drift. After my show and others like it began airing on TV, network executives started to see that there was a market for outrageous over the top content. And this is when things started to slide.

Suddenly there was a demand for more raw and outrageous material. Reality TV had started with shows like The Real World. But it became less about documenting the mundane lives of real people, and more about seeing how many train wrecks could fit into one room. And millions of people began to watch. The network executives who are looking for the next big hit became addicted to the attention. And the content of television continued to spiral downward. The audience became addicted to the cheap thrills. Why?

We don't have as many heroes anymore. They have been overwhelmed by the onslaught of train wrecks we allow into our brains. The days of looking up to inventors, artists, and genuinely successful people are gone, perhaps because they are not celebrated as widely. Society is only partly at fault. Yes, people are more interested in negative information and bad behavior. Seeing losers on TV gives us hope. Seeing a brilliant doctor change the world by curing some disease just isn't sexy. But watch some moron ruin their reputation and we can all rest easy that we would never be so foolish. We have become addicted to this kind of TV not only because it can be entertaining, but also it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Reality TV generally has to go negative in order for it to be interesting. Lets take a look at something like a traditional scripted cop show. Usually what happens is there is a moral compass to the program, the bad guy gets arrested at the end and goes to jail and we all learn that being a criminal is wrong. On reality TV, the star of the show gets more airtime the worse they behave. And we learn that if you act out you get endorsement deals. Today the heroes go to jail and we celebrate them for it.

Yes, the corporate executives who decide what goes on TV are meeting a demand. They feed the public what they want to see in an attempt to get ratings and money. But it is unfair to place sole blame on the public for our decaying culture. Not everyone in the audience is enlightened enough to process that these reality shows and their stars are just mindless entertainment. A lot of people look up to these stars and replicate their bad behavior.

It's not necessarily the media's job to shape the minds and educate the public at large. But the fact is that they do just that. Most people do not analyze why they watch what they watch. They assume the behavior they see on TV is acceptable simply because it is on TV in the first place. This is why the media, like government, does bear some responsibility. Our media is shaping culture and training the audience to no longer demand quality programming. There are so many channels now and such competition for ratings that it becomes a vicious cycle. Greed overwhelms morality. Morality doesn't keep anyone in business. Only ratings do that.

Back in the '60s when the networks had a strangle hold on the publics viewing habits they could report whatever they chose. They would actually avoid reporting on salacious things, like a president having an affair. They knowingly chose to not mention on air the fact that Kennedy was widely considered to be a philanderer. He and his brother were both allegedly having an affair with Marilyn Monroe, the biggest movie star in the world. And they decided not to report it. At the time, reporting on something as personal as this actually may have hurt the ratings of any network that chose to do so. There were just certain things that people didn't talk about back then. Besides, was Kennedy really doing anything wrong that the public needed to know about? Cheating was taboo and ethically the media didn't feel it was their place to talk about the sex life of the president. As long as he was doing his job then why get into his private life?

This was a choice they could afford to make in a three-channel television universe.

I see clearly how things have changed because I was there at the beginning, when things started to unravel. In 1994, as a television-broadcasting student in college, I painted pornography on my parent's car and called it The Slut-mobile. I filmed their shocked reactions and put the video on public access TV in Canada. People watching could not believe their eyes, and actually had a hard time comprehending what they were looking at. Around my hometown people would stop me on the street, baffled and incredulous, and ask me if those were my real parents. Nobody had ever seen an actual family have a real argument on TV before, so they often couldn't believe their eyes. I continued to do these kinds of outrageous things for years. Eventually my little homemade show attracted enough attention to actually get picked up by MTV in 1999. This major corporation moved me to New York, and then Los Angeles and my life forever changed.

When I got the gig with MTV, I spent the better part of my time trying to trick the network into putting my more outrageous antics on air. It was an uphill battle because traditional television hadn't been this raw. It was my youthful desire to push the envelope and manipulate the system. We wanted to change television, not be a part of it. And much to everyone's amazement, the public responded, millions of people watched and the show was a big hit.

After I battled Cancer and survived in the year 2000, I quit my show on MTV. But technology and television continued to evolve. Cameras became smaller and had higher quality. People became even more accustomed to seeing outrageous behavior on TV. The Internet sped up and began to broadcast video. And there was such desperation for ratings that what happened next was amazing.

Those corporate executives that ran television began to mass-produce reality shock TV. But unlike me they were not naïve young pranksters, living in their parent's basements, raging against the system. They were the system. And their ability to permeate our entire society with bad behavior made outrageousness the norm. This was not in the same spirit as my show.

Changing the way reality TV is produced for the greater good is not censorship. The networks should self regulate by putting power back into the hands of artists and comedians. My show on MTV was not reality TV. I was not some kid that they put cameras on and manipulated. I had been producing my show for years in Canada, and in fact most of what we shot re-aired on MTV virtually unedited. It was a sketch comedy show that used new technology to take the comedy to the streets. It was planned out and orchestrated by me to get a reaction from other people. If I chose to make myself look foolish, which I did regularly, this was a calculated choice made by me. Frankly MTV didn't even understand what my show was until after it was a massive hit. Only then did networks begin to regurgitate these shock tactics in reality TV on a massive scale. The networks missed the point. Sure, I was making fun of myself and yes I was pranking others. But the one thing we were making fun of the most, was television itself.

I have been able to live my dream. I now tour the world as a stand up comedian and have been lucky to enjoy the perks of mainstream recognition. Surprising that so much can come from humping a dead moose. But what surprised me most after my show debuted in 1999 was not how I changed, but how the media changed. I had always presumed that the major corporations that ruled our media were far more responsible than I. Apparently, I was wrong.

 
 
 

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