I wrote this essay back in 2002, and it's been about 10 years since I've read it. It's interesting to see just how much reality TV has exploded in the 10 years since this was written. And I admit I'm scared to know if this crazy, "accident on the highway" genre of TV can grow bigger in the future ... and how it can.
Since 1999, reality in America has slowly disappeared. A major reason behind this disappearance is the few years following 1999 became all too real for people. With Y2K, 9-11, and the war in Iraq, people found themselves faced with the harsh glare of reality on a daily basis, and there is only but so much heartache and pain people can take before the desire to escape it all comes into play. It was at this time that television embraced reality entertainment in a way it never had in the past, and this embrace has led to the unraveling of reality for America because people are in too much pain to want to deal with or talk about the real issues. Instead, they crave things so mind numbing that when this reality entertainment phase passes, as all phases do, there may not be one coherent brain cell left among the masses to do anything real anymore.
“They say 2000, zero, zero, party over, oops, out of time. So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999” (Prince). Though there may have been millions of people ready to rock in the new millennium, many people were caught up in Y2K scare, one event that helped to dismantle America’s reality. Thanks in huge part to the media and its playing-up of the scare, the nation trembled in panic mode as the year 2000 approached. Americans feared that as the clock struck midnight, planes would fall out of the sky, banks would shut down, government would cease to operate, black outs would fall, like a wave at a football game, through the entire country—the entire world. Added to this growing mass hysteria was the always-good scare-tactic, the world coming to an end. No one was sure if God would come before or after Y2K halted life, but they knew that the end of times was indeed approaching.
As everyone has come to realize, neither God nor Y2K devastation came on January 1, 2000. America had survived the wrath of both, but what it wouldn’t survive was the onslaught of reality TV that came onto the scene, sparked by the sudden success of a show that premiered in 2000, adequately named, Survivor.
To say Survivor was a sudden success would be a lie because the idea for the show had been flirting around since as early as 1994. In fact, the show originally aired in Sweden in 1997, under the title Expedition Robinson, and “the finale was watched by half the Swedish population - making it one of the most popular programs in the country's history” (“Reality TV around the Globe”). Noting the obvious success of the show, the U.S. rights to the show were bought in 1998, the first season was filmed in 1999, and the world made way for its American premiere in May 2000.
It seems awfully ironic that as soon as America avoided the media-frenzied scare of the “New Millennium” and survived the “End of Times,” it was introduced to Survivor because the show’s motto is the epitome of who America is as a nation; whenever something occurs that has the ability to shake the country’s foundation, its people are reminded—somehow—that they are strong and that they live in a formidable country that can withstand anything. Survivor, a show whose motto is “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast,” places “real, ordinary people” from all works of life into groups at some location in which each group must learn to create its own community, sustain itself despite harsh conditions, and battle with other groups in order to win and receive some award. As these groups are forming their community, each individual, whether he or she admits it or not, is calculating and strategizing over how to become the sole survivor at the end of his or her 39 days on Survivor.
It hardly mattered if things were as real as they appeared on the show at all times. The goal of the viewer was to be entertained as “real” people faced “extraordinary odds; the viewer did not need to remember he or she only got one hour, maybe two a week of a show that was filmed almost non-stop for 39 days. Things were cut for effect, rearranged for drama, and switched for better appeal—to include bodies. Not even the people behind the scenes of the show cared much about how “real” their reality TV hit was. As stated on BBC News’ website, “Survivor producer Mark Burnett admitted faking scenes using body doubles - but said: “I couldn't care less - I'm making great television” (“Reality TV around the Globe”).
Almost instantly, the ratings for Survivor boomed, and it did not take long for other shows, many a variation of Survivor (though some fairly short-lived) to follow suit, such as Big Brother, Amazing Race, Temptation Island, Chains of Love, and The Mole, and they would have to because in 2001, a new need to disassociate from reality and to survive infiltrated Americans’ lives and more than ever, the people would need the media to balm their pain.
No one ever imagined a 9-11. Sure, movies are made and TV shows are created and books are written about these types of things, but no one expected a major catastrophe such as this to come to America’s front door. If the Millennium Scare didn’t cloak Americans in fear, 9-11 would forever make sure that they were shrouded, that they were ever watchful of the terror levels, that they were looking to the sky, hoping nothing would ever fall from it again. Questions were asked, obviously. How long did America know about 9-11? Would another 9-11 happen again? Why did America really go into war? When would America get out of it? Would America ever be safe? As much as those questions were asked, as much as the American people wanted answers, they also wanted to not remember the pain of 9-11, the fear that they’d never be safe, the uncertainty of the return of loved ones sent to war.
The media knew this, and they were ready to give viewers the trip from reality that they sought. They inundated the American people with more eye candy, more sensationalism, and more blurred reality, and because America was already accepting of what the media had to give them, they accepted all the new reality-based shows produced to entertained but which did so much more.
The media gave the viewers Tyra Banks and her harem of would-be models. They gave the viewers two girls who were previously known for nothing, but would soon be known for being rich, former BFFs who showed the world what the simple life was like. They gave the viewers ugly ducklings that went through physical, emotional, and mental transformations to vie for the title, “The Swan.” They put Skipper and Gilligan back on the island because they knew how much the viewers missed the crew’s zany antics from the past. They showed the viewers the saga of looking for a new Partridge family because one just wasn’t enough. They gave the viewers weddings of a lifetime as a bachelorette tied the knot with the love of her life and a pair of Survivor All Stars decided that to extend their forty-five minutes of fame (15 for each respective Survivor, 15 for the All Star show, and 15 for The Amazing Race) by getting hitched. They offered the viewers the dramatic stories of young teens that cried because at their sweet 16 parties, they received the red Hummer and not the black one they had demanded. They, because they knew viewers wanted to know what has-been stars like Tawny Kitan were up to, put several of them in a house and let the viewers watch the surreal drama spark.
They amped-up entertainment shows so that viewers knew that what was really important was not the evening news about the war, or the terror alert, or the mid-elections, but if Jennifer Aniston might or might not be fully over Brad Pitt though she was or was not dating Vince Vaughn. They also presented viewers with a show where families and friends and a group of good-looking hosts help to rebuild a family’s life by extremely making over the family’s home. It is a show worth crying over, even if the viewer leaves the show with the strange need to go out and by some tools or bedding or kitchenware at Sears.
Viewers saw Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, but how many times did they see the media analyze how he jumped and why he jumped and what the ramifications of the jump were? Viewers knew Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had a daughter named Suri, but how many times did they see the media countdown the days of not seeing Suri? How many times did the media predict when TomKat would release photos and where they would release the photos or if they would release photos because what if there really was no Suri? When Suri finally surfaced along with an article/interview, instead of saying “Finally,” how many times did viewers hear the media question why now, why these pictures, why those statements in the article?
Because the real world became too frightening, too painfully real, Americans welcomed the seemingly non-threatening reality entertainment provided by television. They did not foresee their welcome allowing television an “in” that would infiltrate nearly every channel, nearly every facet of their lives. Does no one find it scary or sad that more people vote for an American Idol than for the President of the United States? Does it not disturb anyone that there are people who desperately need their Flavor of Love fix? Though it is not this writer’s belief that all forms of reality entertainment should be done away with, it is her belief that people need a more balanced playing field.
Here’s a bit of reality: the world is sometimes a harsh, mean, painful place to be, and sometimes, there are glimpses of the wonderful, “melting pot” country people are happy to be a part of. Americans must learn to embrace all facets, both negative and positive, of their real experiences and to not rely on entertainment simply to drown out the negative realities. To be in TV, to be in the entertainment industry, period, people have to think beyond “for the greater good” unless that greater good will make or break their ratings, their advertising revenue, their syndication deals, their…and the list goes on. At the end of the day, they do not care how people feel, think, or believe unless that information will benefit them and their bottom line. They are like a bad virus, and America needs some strong antibiotics to eradicate it. That antibiotic is “to get real.” It is a must for people to get real and deal with reality because the media is always out there, lurking – creating, casting, directing – waiting to show viewers their next reality.
Prince. “1999.” 1999. Warner Brothers Recordings, 1982.
“Reality TV around the Globe.” BBC News. 24 May 2001. 23 Sept. 2006
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