Reality TV: Outlie, Outsex, Outdebauch


“Reality” tv used to be the cheesy, greasy-haired flake of the Hollywood greenroom. It was the seedy huckster nobody talked to, leaning against the corner pay phone holding a cheap mixed drink and pretending to mingle with the high-caliber news program, drama and comedy genres.

No longer. That small-time flake with bad taste is now an industry powerhouse. It’s pulling more viewers than any other genre and turning hit series into washed-up has-beens.

But although its status in Hollywood has shot up to the king of prime-time programming, reality television’s content has taken a proportional dive in the opposite direction. In the savage contest for ratings, American reality tv has plumbed new depths in cheap titillation, turning viewers into voyeurs in the process.

Real Explosion

Reality shows burst out of the television backwater in the summer of 2000 with the surprise sensation of Survivor: Pulau Tiga, which featured 16 average Americans competing against each other in an attempt to lie, muscle and betray their way to the million-dollar prize. The show’s finale drew 51 million viewers, ranking as the most-watched summertime program on record. It was the second-most-watched show of the year next to the Super Bowl.

Almost immediately, dozens of new reality shows popped up on every television network schedule, from American Idol to Temptation Island to Trading Spouses. Since that original Survivor series, over 200 reality shows have flooded network and cable television.

In addition to pervading prime-time programming for the past five years, reality shows are causing executives not only to stack their scheduling decks with a bevy of absurd challenges and “real life” soap operas, but also to consider restructuring the entire economic model on which network television is based. Because reality shows forgo the weighty salaries of actors (which sometimes soar as high as $1 million per episode) and writers, producing a series involves less risk, and the overall cost is only a fraction of a scripted season of C.S.I. or Everybody Loves Raymond. After adding product placement and corporately sponsored prizes to regular commercial revenues, some shows cost virtually nothing to produce.

In addition, reality series last only a few weeks, so networks can stagger new shows throughout the year rather than run repeats during summer months, grabbing a huge market share back from cable and satellite programming. As Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman told one reporter, “The 50-year-old economic model of this business is kind of history now” (New York Times, Jan. 25, 2003).

But a tiny price tag and a full-year schedule are not the only face cards in the reality-show hand. Executive mouths are watering most over reality tv’s immense popularity with the marketing trump card: the youth demographic.

Young Americans—the biggest spending demographic in the market—can’t get enough of their favorite reality shows, and big business knows it. Forbes

.com reported that a 30-second spot on fox’s top money-maker American Idol in its January-May 2004 installment cost $414,700, earning a season total of $260.7 million for the network (Sept. 7, 2004).

High on Ratings, Not on Content

Whether or not the low-brow kingpin of the prime time is a short-lived craze or the new industry standard, “reality” is big, and millions of Americans are watching, listening and learning—particularly those under 30. It stands to reason, then, that someone should ask—and answer—the question, What is this doing to our minds?

Besides suffering from unbelievably banal premises that hearken to carnival freak shows and your junk mail folder—besides being framed by overly dramatic phrases like, “never before seen,” “watch as …”, “jam-packed,” and “… until now”—reality shows are taking us from impassive viewership to a seedy, slipshod world of voyeurism.

More than just snorting at the spot for Are You Hot? that comes on as we ironically settle into our easy chairs for the finale of Fear Factor, we need to take a close look at reality programminga close look that might well be our last.

The acid test for reality show programming: content. What is it actually broadcasting into the American psyche?

Here’s the rundown.

“As Seen on TV”

In June 2004, the Parents Television Council released a study on reality broadcasts based on 1141/2 hours of reality television over a 15-month period. The study, titled “Reality tv: Race to the Bottom,” reviewed the first four episodes of 29 abc, cbs, nbc, pax, Fox, upn and wb series, and covered shows that featured individuals or teams competing for a prize or seeking romance, and day-in-the-life scenarios. The study found:

· 1,135 instances of foul language, about 10 per hour.

· 492 instances of sexual content.

· 30 instances of violence.

· This comes to a total of 1,657 instances of offensive content—14.5 per hour. Factoring in commercials, that’s one instance of offensive content every three minutes. More specifically, this offensive content included:

· 16 instances of sexual activity.

· Two references to masturbation; 18 references to kinky sexual practices.

· Two implied instances where the participants engaged in oral sex.

In addition:

· On wb’s Surreal Life, one contestant’s uncontrollable profanity resulted in him using one of the most offensive expletives 20 times in approximately nine sentences. Producers censored the word, but ensured it was still clearly discernible.

· America’s Next Top Model viewers saw one participant verbally abuse a religious opponent using 11 words covering half the list of official obscenities, all in one violent tirade.

· cbs’s Survivor: Amazon viewers saw multiple instances of pixilated frontal nudity as female contestants sunbathed and attempted to distract the game’s male players.

Reality shows on wb and upn had the worst levels of offensive content; both networks specifically target the youth demographic with their programming.

Although a handful of legitimate and harmless reality shows might exist, the reality boom has spawned a majority of absurd and vapid titles: Anything for Love, Boy Meets Boy, But the Sex Is So Good, The Littlest Groom, Race to the Altar, Sex in the Itty Bitty City, The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Wife Swap.

Cold Turkey follows the drama of 10 chain-smokers who give up cigarettes, while Queer Eye for the Straight Guy features fashion-inept heterosexual men “rescued” from their slobbery by a quintet of homosexuals. The plot line for Temptation Island separates an unmarried couple, putting each through a series of sexual temptations in an effort to determine the fidelity of each.

Paving the way for further gender-bending is He’s a Lady, a series where 11 macho males are told they’re competing in a show called All American Man and must hurdle a variety of challenges in high-heels and dresses, learning how to behave like a woman and taking part in typically all-female activities. The show culminates with the “heartwarming” climax where the $250,000 question is asked: “What, as a lady, have you learned about being a man?”

We’ve come a long way from the lies, conniving and betrayal of that original Survivor. Now, traits that used to be sole property of the high school jerk have become strategies and strengths of a winner, a survivor. Now, what even the most inventive locker-room gutter-mouth has never dreamed of is on at 8/7 central in all its spouse-swapping, backstabbing, gender-crossing, sex-sloshing, mind-numbing glory.

It sounds disgusting and embarrassingly repulsive when presented in a legitimate, thoughtful forum, but for some reason Americans just shake their heads and keep on watching these vile events dance across their television screens.

More Than Just Brain Drain

Reality tv feeds us the things we used to regard with shame, the things our character has always drawn the line at: laughing at others’ suffering, peeping in on their intimate thoughts, watching them squirm—and it beams them into our minds and our children’s minds in a desperate—and embarrassing—grab for ratings.

This “rubbernecking” syndrome causes a vicious cycle. As each new and extreme concept becomes last week’s finale, producers drive themselves to find what will make the newly desensitized public tune in next time. Thus, grosser stunts, racier footage and more blatant innuendos are the order of the day.

What messages are we receiving when we watch this unclean wash of programming? When we see a boyfriend/girlfriend team race against a boyfriend/boyfriend team, we may not suddenly embrace homosexuality, but we are, to some degree, getting acclimated to it. And could it be helping to clear the way for something else?

The “issues” used to consist of heated debate over fornication and promiscuity. Then, as society got used to and subsequently accepted young people sleeping around, the “issues” descended to outright adultery and heterosexual perversions. As those sins gained exposure, then tolerance, then acceptance, then adoption, the debate began to rage over homosexuality. Then transsexuality. Now homosexual marriage.

Mankind’s history has been one long cycle of desensitization to new and different perversions—a cycle that began when man chose to rely on his own law rather than God’s.

What next?

Will moral spokesmen and “conservatives” soon move on from homosexuality and the other “issues” of today to speak out against the final perverted frontier of bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia and the few other sins society still considers unacceptable?

Sound alarmist? So did those who claimed that the glamorized sexual promiscuity of the 1970s and even before would lead to the homosexuality, perversions and voyeurism available on your television today.

Instead of laughing at the more obviously deplorable shows until the shock wears off and finding ourselves absent-mindedly watching average people eat spiders and frolic naked on the beach, it’s time to take firmer action. It’s time to flip the switch and send that sleazy genre with the bad taste back to the backwater.