There’s a meme being passed around on sites such as Facebook that says, “Every time you watch reality TV, a book dies.” I’m not sure which is more frightening: The fact that someone had to create it, or that millions of Americans will look at it and say, “I don’t get it.”
Reality TV as a “thing” has been around since at least the early 1990s, when MTV premiered “The Real World” to shockingly high ratings. The concept was revolutionary for its time; several young people of differing backgrounds were forced to live together in a house for an extended period of time in the hopes that conflict and life lessons would ensue. They did, of course, and the show swiftly became the herald of the death knell of MTVs days of playing music videos.
Still, the phenomenon remained localized to cable TV and teens and pre-teens until the dawn of the new millennium when CBS’ “Survivor” took a bunch of people of differing backgrounds and convinced millions of gullible people they were roughing it in the jungles of Latin America. The ratings were staggering. This relatively cheap to produce show with no stars or even actors had some people glued to their couches every week to see who would win the money after screwing over his or her fellow Survivors.
I remember when the show aired for the first time. There was a TV in our break area and two maintenance workers appeared from out of nowhere to watch it during lunch. One of them realized she was sitting in front of me and, despite the fact that I was reading a book, asked me if she was blocking my view. The look of pure shock on her face when I said no is burned into my brain. She couldn’t believe I wasn’t interested in the show she and others had been told to watch.
That day a book lived because I helped it along, but the reality TV explosion was coming. Soon there were other shows featuring identical themes. “Big Brother” threw a bunch of obnoxious jerks into a house. “The Amazing Race” featured a bunch of obnoxious jerks racing one another for money. “The Bachelorette” and its close cousin “The Bachelor” featured shallow, opportunistic vultures competing for the attentions of one person. You get the idea. “Reality” equals the very worst of humanity portrayed as entertainment, something the soap operas understood all too well.
However, while soaps reveled in human misery and exploitation, they also provided fun fantasy and adventure. Reality TV features none of that. Instead, it is a showcase for supposedly regular people, many of whom have designs on becoming famous, competing for something or someone while making viewers feel morally superior. For many, they have actually replaced soap operas as their form of voyeuristic entertainment because of the notion that what’s happening on these shows is real as opposed to dramatized.
It isn’t unusual to meet someone, usually female but not always, who only watches reality TV programming. They tend to find other forms of entertainment silly and pointless because they’re not real. Drama is seen as inferior to real life because they wrongly believe the famous line, “Truth is stranger than fiction” invalidates the latter while extolling the virtues of the former.
Actual reality, however, is very different from what these types of viewers think, especially as it pertains to what they are actually seeing. Reality TV is scripted. Some are flat out fabricated nonsense. And if the show features some faded celebrity such as “Flavor of Love,” the events being shown are so far beyond staged it makes drama seem even more vital and necessary.
What’s truly astounding about the reality TV juggernaut is the amount of mundane subject matter people seem to find riveting. For instance, there are at least two shows about pawn shops! If you’ve ever been to one of these places, you know the only thing you’re liable to experience is sadness and revulsion in equal amounts. Yet these shows proudly show us the trials and tribulations of people who prey on the poor and addicted as if they’re heroes. Trust me, I have sat next to one of the stars of this show and listened to him talk at a restaurant; they’re not heroes or even remotely interesting.
This first installment wasn’t intended to go into the effect, whether negative, positive or negligible that reality TV has had on society. That’s information you’ll find in the second portion. So, in the interests of remaining on topic, let’s go back to the meme mentioned in the first paragraph, shall we?
What does it mean to say a book dies every time you watch a reality TV show? Best answer: Why don’t you try reading one and then tell us.