Reality TV

24 09 2006

I found myself in an interesting conversation last night with my grandmother. An elderly lady of 82, she spends most of her nights sitting and watching television. One night, not so long ago, she happened to change over to Big Brother. She has since decided to get in touch with the network executives of the television station responsible for “this filth” and tell them what she thinks of it. Her actions would be futile, and I told her so. Television networks do not care for the opinions of individuals on a matter such as this, they care for ratings. Big Brother, as a hugely popular television programme, will remain on the air despite the protests of an individual who, it should be noted, does not belong to their targeted demographic. Yet, despite all this, she has a powerful point.

“Reality TV”, the new craze to sweep our television-infatuated generation, is a misnomer. The programs that fall into this category constitute neither an adequate reflection of reality, nor a satisfactory form of ‘TV’ entertainment. They are, as my grandmother so succinctly observed, “filth”. The days of shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch are over. Today, television audiences want to see the limits of the media pushed ever further into what they deem to be ‘real’. The family-oriented sit-coms of the ’70s and ’80s are unreal: the lifestyles that they promote and the values that they advertise are as false as the smiles and the hairdos of their polished protagnonists. But does Big Brother truly represent a viable alternative?

My grandmother, along with others of her generation, feels that Reality TV is encouraging vice. It promotes sexual promiscuity, pornographic voyeurism and (although perhaps only indirectly) drug-abuse and violence. The reason for the rise in crime over the last few decades falls squarely (in her opinion) on the media. If television shows continued to present the same plastic decency as they had in the past, our lives would be greatly improved. She is wrong.

Art is as much a product of its surrounding environment as it is a catalyst of the same. Oscar Wilde, in his brilliant The Picture of Dorian Gray, dealt precisely with this issue. His conclusion: art imitates life, imitating art. While the films that present (or attempt to present) violence and sexual abuse in all of their gritty reality may be promoting such activities, they are moreso driven by the rise of such activities in our society. The real cause lies with population explosion and STDs – the latter of which has promoted frank and honest discussion of sexual matters.

So, what’s wrong with Big Brother?

While Reality TV may not be (directly) promoting the sorts of problems that are tearing our society apart, it is encouraging another vice: stupidity. Ours is a generation raised on television. People today are more comfortable vegetating in front of a screen – irrespective of what is being shown – than they are reading a book. A book requires effort, it’s not going to sit there and read itself. It requires skill. Television programmes make few such demands and, as time progresses, they make even fewer.

The West today is experiencing a cultural phenomenon much like the decline of the Roman Empire. The height of our glory marks also the very depths of our depravity. Reality TV is proof of the fact that audiences are no longer discerning. Toilet humour and sexual lewdness are sufficient to keep somebody glued to the set. Lines do not need to be memorised, themes do not need to be portrayed; so long as somebody takes off their clothes, the show is a winner. Is this a taste of the future of television? It is merely an exaggeration of what television has been all along, and I see no salvaging of the industry at all.

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