Why Do Americans Love Reality TV?

Why Do Americans Love Reality TV?

I must confess, I do not watch much television anymore. There are many reasons for this: lack of interest, too busy, better things to do, and most importantly, television is just plain bad.

The latest truly bad fad to litter the airways is known as reality TV. The concept is fairly simple, put “ordinary” people in awkward situations so we can all laugh at what transpires. What about this attracts viewers is beyond me. I assume it appeals to the same part of the brain that causes us to stop and stare at car wrecks and fires.

But these shows are getting 15 and 20 million viewers tuning in each week to watch another installment of their favorite train wreck. You can’t blame the networks for continuing to churn out this mess. They give the people what they want.

The show concepts vary and I will examine a few of the common types:

1. Dating/matchmaking – One of the older types of reality shows has as its roots in the early dating and newlywed game shows. Although they rarely strayed beyond a little naughty innuendo. The new reality hybrids take it up a notch or two. They get some guy or girl and have them select from a multitude of suitors. There are of course many variations of the same theme. Sometimes the parents are involved, sometimes the audience even gets to vote on who they like best.

With the cameras rolling and America watching, the “courtship” begins. After several weeks of squeezing every rating point out of this nightmare, all of America holds its collective breath waiting to see which contestant was selected. Of course the relationship is a sham and falls apart in the pages of the tabloids a few weeks later. The network PR hacks give each other a high five and move on to the next episode.

And in a really bizarre twist of this theme, the producers even lie to contestants telling them that the man they are competing for is a millionaire. I don’t know what’s worse, having women competing for someone who is rich, or a man willing to live this lie in front of the entire country. Truly bizarre.

2. Real Life – Let me just say this, anyone that desires to spend any time watching the life of Ozzy, or Anna Nichole, or any other combination of celebrities or celebrity wannabes, needs to immediately seek professional help. These are just bad. I had the misfortune of watching part of an episode at a friend’s home. It is not funny. It is not amusing. It is sad, bordering on pathetic. You might as well visit a mental hospital and laugh at the patients.

3. Extreme Game Shows – These reality shows take the basic game show to new heights of absurdity. Placing individuals in “life-threatening situations” or under great duress for the amusement of millions of couch potatoes. It reminds me of the great gladiator fights of ancient Rome, but I digress.

Again the basic theme has many variations. Stick the contestant on an island and make him/her compete to see who is the last person standing. Or make them eat bugs or participate in some dangerous stunt to win the prize. The allure of 15 minutes of fame and a little cash must be a big motivator.

4. The Talent Shows – Or in some cases, the lack of talent is berated by some pseudo-celebrity to the delight of the audience. The original talent shows were a great way for someone to get noticed and break into the business. But now they have evolved into grotesque freak shows with judges who relish the opportunity to criticize the contestants.

And they are not all just about talent. There are some shows that require no talent at all. The celebrity has-been judges vote on which contestant is the sexiest. Maybe the networks will let the audience vote the least talented judges off the panel. We can only hope.

I guess I am a skeptic at heart. People are not themselves in front of cameras and microphones. I also know that the producers could risk huge lawsuits in the event anyone was hurt or otherwise mistreated. Its hard for me to believe for one second that these shows are not carefully scripted, rehearsed and edited for viewing. And even if they weren’t, normal people don’t behave the way the reality shows portray them. If they did, nobody would watch them. Again, I submit that people watch them precisely to see the train wreck happen. Which in itself is really sad.

So next time you find yourself wanting to watch a reality show. Consider doing something else like:

1. Read a good book
2. Call up an old friend or distant relative
3. Go to the gym, exercise or join a sports league
4. Volunteer somewhere
5. Meet a friend for dinner

Originally published January 2000.