FIRST-PERSON: Reality TV: why do people watch?

Baptist Press
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Posted: Apr 08, 2011 5:00 PM
FIRST-PERSON: Reality TV: why do people watch?
ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)--Reality TV is the practice whereby a camera crew tracks the day-to-day lives of interesting people and/or families for the purpose of broadcasting the video footage on television for entertainment purposes.

Notice that in my definition, the subjects must be "interesting." There must be something unique about a person or family in order for them to become a reality television star. And unique sometimes means extreme or dysfunctional.

Have a strange eating disorder? You could be featured on TLC's "Freaky Eaters." Battling a bizarre addiction like sleeping with your blow dryer while it is turned on -- no, I'm not making this up -- and you could be on another TLC show, "My Strange Addiction."

If you hoard junk or animals beyond belief, you are a prime candidate for a reality program. If you are an over-the-hill celebrity rife with dysfunction, you have a chance at reality TV fame. However, take a number, the line is long.

Do you like to party all night and sleep all day? Well you might hit it big like the slacker stars of "Jersey Shore." If you are a teenage girl who is pregnant and unmarried, take heart, there is a reality TV show just for you.

There are literally hundreds of reality television programs that have aired during the past decade, according to the website RealityTVWord.com. I stopped counting at 250 and was only halfway through the list.

Of course, all reality TV does not feature the bizarre and the extreme. Some feature dangerous jobs. Others are based on competition. Dancing, cooking, baking, modeling, talent and even entrepreneurship -- if a competition can be created, it has potential for reality television.

Some reality TV is informative. Many programs instruct on how to exercise, garden, renovate a home or cook great meals.

But in my mind there is not a bigger oxymoron on the planet today than "reality TV."

Does anyone really believe that the constant presence of a camera crew does not alter reality just a bit? If a camera person were filming me at breakfast I think it would influence my behavior just a tad.

The finished product is also edited before it is broadcast. Whatever you see during a reality television program is what the participants and/or the producers of the show want you to see. If an episode is overly dramatic, it is not by accident. Just know the producer, or even the participants, are trying to manipulate the audience.

The sad part of reality television is its exploitive nature. Few, if any, participants are famous because of hard work, talent or skill. They achieve reality stardom because they are willing to expose and exploit a portion of their private lives.

It seems the more a person or family is willing to expose, the more fame is achieved. In reality television dignity is sold to the highest bidder.

For all of reality TV's shortcomings, as a genre it is wildly popular, but why?

One reason reality television does well is the voyeuristic nature of human beings. Whether it is a wreck on the highway, the most recent piece of gossip or the freak show at a carnival, humans like to gawk at the drama in someone else's life.

The competitive aspect of some reality programs is attractive to many, especially when viewers are allowed to vote for participants. The rooting for a favorite personality and the interactivity keep people coming back for more.

A main reason why I believe much of reality TV is popular is what I call the "it could be worse" factor. When viewers see the dysfunction that is paraded on reality television, they realize their lives -- their reality -- could be much worse.

The worst of reality TV makes people feel better about their own lives. While things may not be great at work or in the home, the wacked-out people on reality television bring the realization that things are maybe not as bad as first thought.

"I've come to believe that reality television is like a drug, and we have built up a tolerance for the regular run of reality TV," Mary Elizabeth Williams, a writer for Salon.com, told CNN.com.

If Williams is right, one day television may be nothing but extreme, dysfunctional reality TV. If that happens, perhaps more people will make a choice to turn off their televisions and embrace the reality of their own lives instead of being entertained by the "reality" of others.

Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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