Rubbernecking: Reality Bytes

Reality television, quoth Wikipedia, is a genre of television programming which presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and usually features ordinary people instead of professional actors . . . The term reality television is most commonly used to describe programs of this genre produced since 2000 . . . a wide variety of programming formats, from game or quiz shows which resemble the frantic, often demeaning shows produced in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s . . . to surveillance- or voyeurism-focused productions such as Big Brother. Such shows frequently portray a modified and highly influenced form of reality, with participants put in exotic locations or abnormal situations, sometimes coached to act in certain ways by off-screen handlers, and with events on screen sometimes manipulated through editing and other post-production techniques.

The real granddaddy of the reality TV show as we know it today was An American Family, a 12-episode documentary series broadcast in 1973 on PBS. The directors, Alan and Susan Raymond, were the first to install cameras into a real-life situation. They documented hundreds of hours of the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. During the course of the filming, the marriage of Bill and Pat Loud imploded, they separated, and Pat filed for divorce.

Of the five Loud children, Lance, the oldest son, is the best known. He was the first openly gay person depicted on television, although this was never overtly discussed on the show. Lance later had a punk band of some reknown, the Mumps, became a rock columnist, a crystal meth addict, and died in 2001 from complications due to HIV and hepatitis C at the age of 50.

One has to think that Lance would be rather amused by the huge viral growth in reality TV that has taken place since MTV's The Real World went on the air in 1992, the next gold standard of the genre after An American Family. The show, which is about to go into its 22nd season (try that statistic on if you wanna feel old), was originally produced by Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray.

What a long way we've come since 1992. Now, we're actually used to the sight of people eating bugs or the sex organs of animals, being beaten up and humiliated, being drowned in moats of maggots, jumping off high buildings, and suchlike. I remember first reading the brilliant Stephen King / Richard Bachman novel The Running Man. Such a world was foretold in that book; the story is about the USA of 2025. Convicted felons are contestants on a game show in which they literally run for their lives as a live television audience watches. Oh yeah, and the society is a militaristic, totalitarian nightmare. The book was published in 1982, and a world in which such programming would be possible seemed remote indeed.

Not so now. Who's next in line to open their personal lives to the world and scoop up the big ratings? Will it be Sarah Palin in Gubernatorial Hockey Mom from Hell? She could use a big TV deal to help pay for her tax debts. Will it be Joe the Plumber in Pay Me and I'll Dance For You? He's already started a TV career as war correspondent (that's a head-scratcher for sure), has a publicist, a possible record deal, and is courting corporate sponsorships. Will it be Nadya Suleman, the Octo-Mom? She's got to find a way to support those kids, her house is being foreclosed on, and she needs an income - bad. How about Fourteen Little Brats from God? Where's Mark Burnett when you need him?

Read more of Holly's ruminations on the slings and arrows of popular culture at Snoop* Du Jour.