While I’m waiting around for my classes to start, I thought I’d jump in the (oft-named) shallow end of the cultural and media studies pool and have a look at reality TV. There’s quite a bit on various channel’s catchup websites (thought the quality of the video technology varies – and the amount of ads). While I’m likely to spend a lazy day with videos of home restorations or architecture, I thought I’d try things like 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Nanny 911.
There are a few techniques I already know of in the reality tv show business. Clips played out of order (such as someone talking, but using the reaction shot of another from another day), scripting (particularly accused of the Bachelor/the Bachelorette), using actors (usually going with the scripting claims), sensationalism, other forms of manipulation from producers – or even from the people within the program, unfair representations (showing only one side of an argument, or the narrator making conclusions). Reality shows that are competitions are especially prone to manipulation – false personas, the prizes being not as promised, the competition not being fairly represented (such as weight loss shows actually filming for a longer time than is portrayed – maybe 14 days instead of a week – or contestants dehydrating themselves to lose more weight before they are put on the scales).
There’s a lot of argument about what reality tv actually does for our culture. It’s usually portrayed as a very shallow form of ‘entertainment’, for the shock value, to make people feel better about their own lives, to encouraging instant 15-minute celebrities, targeting the lowest denomination or glamourising bad situations. There is a flip side – that we engage in the emotions, or learn from the situations people get themselves into. It is said that Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant are actually forms of education, as well as entertainment. It helps to establish a dialogue about teenage sexuality, as well as about options for contraception, and above all, is teaching about how hard it is to be teen parent. If you look up any page on Teen Moms with a comment system, you’ll find opinions on anything from blaming the parents, slut-shaming the teens, arguing their personalities, child neglect, arguments on how much they were paid and overall, whether or not this show is good for society.
Reality TV which isn’t as controversial, such as Masterchef, has had some unexpected side effects. The show did so well amongst young people, that Junior Masterchef was created. Admittedly, part of the reason why I started cooking as much as I do (and now love it), is due to watching Masterchef, as well as ‘If a 9 year old can temper chocolate, so can I!’. It is generally acknowledged in media that Masterchef has had a positive effect on society, getting people back into home-cooking, although it is also said that the dishes they create on the show are not accessible for the everyday shopper (try truffles at $30 each!) and the food is often unhealthy for regular eating, and doesn’t portray a lot of dishes that could be eaten by people with, say, diabetes or celiacs. Another controversy is over the winners, in particular the very first winner of the Australian winner, Julie Goodwin. Something which may be unique to the Australian show is how suddenly chefs were celebrities – some were already famous, Donna Hay is a hard name to miss even in the local supermarket, but add to this Adriano Zumbo or Peter Gilmore. Zumbo, undisputed evil master of the tasty and delicious, now even has pre-mix boxes in his name available for sale.
I don’t think there is any study that definitively says whether it’s good or bad, and we’ll probably never know. It’s just one of the oddities of human evolution. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out like the reality shows in Dr Who, or really any other science fiction text!