Aimlow.com is very proud to present a guest column from the My Dog Ate My Homework Blog
Lowest Aim Possible: Reality TV
Earlier this year, a casting call went out on Craigslist to find people to participate in a reality show focusing on “rich, wealthy, hipster GUYS and GIRLS 21-30 whose personal style is homeless chic.” When I saw this, all I could think of was television producers looking to turn a mirror on everyone I knew who was watching Jersey Shore religiously. I thought of how much they’d enjoy being part of a television show about being violent alcoholics who, when they don’t get to have sex, start hitting and breaking things. I wondered how I’d act were I cast on a reality show, and if everyone I know would play the part of a violent, destructive alcoholic because that’s the role that reality television seems to want more than any other. It’s pretty low.
For television executives and producers, reality television is easy. It began to take shape as we know it now in the wake of a Writers Guild of America strike in 1988 that produced COPS and a handful of other shows. MTV developed The Real World and Road Rules within a few years, and America’s Funniest Home Videos took off in the late 1980s as well. The format had early potential because it was, at least in some cases, unscripted, meaning that writers could be cut out of the system that produces television shows (though many contemporary reality shows are, of course, scripted and designed to produce a very specific response and sequence of events, and there have been tricky legal issues surrounding those writers’ status in the wake of the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike).
Survivor and Big Brother’s successes led to the explosion of reality television that we now come to expect of the genre. While Survivor was at least a game show, Big Brother had little going for it other than the prospect of watching people. Of course, both produced celebrities. Last year’s smash Jersey Shore turned most of its cast into famous people, and also changed the dynamic; unlike MTV’s other reality shows, Jersey Shore became about a group of people, not about the place, and so the show’s second season – despite taking place in Florida – revolved not around new young people but around Mike “The Situation,” Snooki, and company (who successfully pushed for considerably higher wages for this season). They saw TV as an opportunity to become famous, then did it.
By design, reality programming is base, but certain things doubly confirm this, like Fox’s Man Vs. Beast special or VH1’s Flavor of Love and Rock of Love. MTV’s A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila series culminated in the winning contestant being unable to actually receive Tila’s phone number from anyone and nothing at all happening. For everyone involved except the viewers, it’s a quick cash-in, a route to fame for those who only exist to promote themselves. But viewers see that, say “I could do that!” and contribute to a vicious cycle (see the casting call mentioned above).