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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sur-Reality Television: Previously on Panopticon...

I remember it well: Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, February 15th, 2000. It was my first exposure to the tacky modern reality television shows that are now omnipresent on network television. I turned it on with the same morbid curiosity exhibited by the twelve-year-old who follows his friends down to the railroad yard because they heard there was a dead body by the tracks. I watched it while on the phone with my boyfriend at the time, who was also tuned in; our mutual affinity for mocking the circus before us brought us closer to each other, and one step closer to hell.

Of course, reality television has been around much longer than seven years. Precendents for television that portrayed people in unscripted situations actually began in the 1940s. Debuting in 1948, Allen Funt's Candid Camera broadcast unsuspecting ordinary people being pranked. American Idol was predicted in 1968 in the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses,” in which gladiatorial combat was featured on television, with viewers calling in to vote for the winners (I’m sure the Trekkies out there remember the immortal line "You bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you!").

The first reality show in the modern sense was the PBS series An American Family. Twelve parts were broadcast in the United States in 1973. The series dealt with a nuclear family going through a divorce. Of course, An American Family was presented as more of a documentary, made for the sake of education rather than entertainment. Albert Brooks predicted the fundamental struggle between scientific observation and entertainment when he made the satirical 1979 film Real Life. Using An American Family as its basis, Brooks made a “reality” film portraying himself as a reality television director making a show about a “real family” in Arizona. What emerges is a clear paradox: mass entertainment media can never portray reality because the very act of being part of such media warps “real” behavior. The fact that there were so many predictors of reality television is not terribly surprising. Alfred Hitchcock, among others, often commented that watching a film is an act of voyeurism. Audiences go to the movies not just to escape, but to spy on the lives of other people. Reality TV seems like a natural next step. Producers love reality television because it’s cheap; audiences love it because it is, supposedly, “real.” However, as Brooks pointed out in Real Life, “reality is boring.” So the producers manipulate the people involved and then edit the footage in order to tell a more appealing story. The term “reality television,” is, therefore, a misnomer.

Don't get me wrong; I have a few reality television shows that I enjoy. Usually, I like the ones that involve some kind of skill or profession; Project Runway and Top Chef are my favorites. What concerns me is that, given the natural progression we have seen thus far, truly awful things could lie ahead in the arena of “reality television.” Eventually, there will be a backlash against all of the scripted, fake reality shows and a demand for “real” reality shows will grow. At this point, the networks will either A) abandon the genre entirely (which, given the cost-effective nature of reality television, is unlikely) or B) find some way to make it all more “real.” The only way to do that (and now I’m starting to think in terms of 1984 and Sliver) would be to put people on television without them knowing. Yes, this has been done on shows like Punk’d and satirized in movies like The Truman Show but I'm talking about a whole new level. I'm talking about a reality show called Panopticon! Imagine, a show in which a large family is contacted, one at a time, by producers. Each one is given a set of small, state of the art cameras and asked to spy on their family. However, none of them knows that the others are also spying. What results is a reality television show, made by the cast itself, in which no one knows he is a star. Now that, ladies in gentleman, could be the future of reality television. You heard it here first. For those of you who doubt me, I can only say that I successfully predicted the shows Intervention, Who Wants To Marry My Dad and The Real Housewives of Orange County. I'm not proud, I'm just saying. If it makes you feel kind of sick to your stomach and unclean, it's probably in pre-production right now.


Blogger BiggSeester said...

With all the advances in home movie making--digital cameras, DVD burners and programs that make editing easy and fun--I'd like to see some "reality television" made by the audience for the audience. One of my favorite "reality shows" is Little People, Big World. The reason that I enjoy that program is that I really like that family and I actually care about what's going on with them, not as little people, but as a family. I'd like to see more shows like that--stories about families being families without an obvious "hook" like the parents being little people, or the fact that the family has quints, quads or sixteen kids. I think that if I made a show about my family that people might just enjoy some of the things an "ordinary" family gets up to or out of.

9:30 AM  

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