November 06, 2002

Channeling Reality


“The human brain is more active sleeping than watching television.” –Pop-Up Video, a TV show

Join the More Than Words staff as we flash back to August 1999. That month was a period of change and upheaval in America, as I packed up and moved across town. My room in the new McGibboney Manor did not have a connection for cable television, so I gave up my cable box and took up other hobbies.

At the same time, a similar cultural shift was going on halfway across the land, in southern California, where I had trekked on vacation a few weeks before (coincidence or conspiracy?) Network executives, faced with an impending actors’ strike, looked for ways to avoid the death of prime-time television, which they apparently saw as a bad thing.

Someone hit upon the idea of creating shows with regular people rather than actors. Their hope was that these “reality shows” would resonate with regular folk, as the stars would be non-Hollywood types who could very well live next door. Hey, it worked for those kids on Barney.

Since then, Americans have been tuning in by the droves to such fare as “Survivor,” “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” “Temptation Island,” “Who wants to Marry a Multimillionaire,” “The Osbournes,” “Elimidate,” “Big Brother,” “The Anna Nicole Show,” “Big Brother 2: Attack of the Clones” and “Who Wants to See the Woman who Married the Multimillionaire Divorce the Multimillionaire?”

Whew! Looks like I gave up the cable box just in time.

Of course, the concept of reality television is nowhere near new. Though many credit MTV for starting the trend in the early 1990s with “Road Rules” and “the Real World,” the ancestors of today’s shows actually surfaced in the 1950s. The notoriously fixed game shows of that decade showed real Americans losing real money at the hands of the rich and manipulative TV executives; with a shakier camera, those game shows could have been documentaries.

At worst, the majority of these reality shows are benign; there’s really no problem with watching them. I watch very microscopic amounts of TV these days for numerous reasons, but mainly because shows devoted to survival of the most rudely aggressive don’t turn me on.

Alas, I am in the minority. TV execs give what the public what it wants, since the shows are obviously hits. But let me explain something about pop culture: people will latch on to trends on the sole basis of their trendiness. “Eye piercing? I saw on MTV that it’s the new trend! I’m so there!” Multiply times millions and you have a made-to-order fad.

Even if this is the case, manufactured trends cannot endure without genuine public interest. All signs point to the ongoing demand for increasingly intrusive reality TV as the decade stumbles along; with that in mind, I propose some guaranteed hit series of my own:

“Big Brother’s Revenge,” in which we watch the Big Brother contestants watch themselves on Big Brother. We will thrill to their reactions when they see why the other contestants voted them out of the house, and witness the subsequent Jerry Springer-type brawls that take place. Wednesdays on CBS.

“Trading Chambers” has the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives redecorating each other’s venues. In the first episode, the representatives cover the Senate in mud while the senators splash blood all over the House. They then bicker at each other as usual. Saturdays on TLC-Span.

“Survivor” is an intimate look into the band behind such eighties classics as “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Search is Over.” Watch the band members squabble backstage at Grand Casino Coushatta! Witness them watch “Rocky III” for the 458th time!

Finally, “America’s Most Wanted” will abandon small-time crooks and track down corporate criminals. New episodes will appear hourly.

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