Reality TV. Neither reality nor television. Discuss.

What we all know and love as reality television is in actuality not realistic television. In fact, nothing can ever truly be realistic television unless you are watching the tape of surveillance camera, but even then- the choice of position, the beginning and ending of the tape, etc. all create inherent bias. So when it comes to reality television, with all the cutting, splicing, and special effects, much more is thrown into the bias basket of editing.

It would be one thing if people really believed that these shows were 100% real - no scripts, no stage make-up, no product placements… but many openly acknowledge the fictional elements or atleast the over dramaticism involved. But they still watch it. Why?

Is it the staging of raw emotion that captivates us? Author E. Probyn writes, "It is something about the staging of real emotion. In the new generation of reality TV there's also the crude but compelling mixture of team spirit versus rugged individualism. Shows like Survivor give us a vision of human sociality stripped naked. The big draw seems to be that we can watch real, if not very likeable, people do unreal things in order to win. And we get to squeal in outrage about the fact we're watching it."

But the argument of how real these people are comes to surface. The show might be constructed, we realize people aren't put into situations like the obstacle courses of Survivor everyday - but we do we still believe the people participating are authentic?

Author Gilbert Bouchard thinks not. "Now that they have a sequel to Survivor, you can see just how much they are trying to recreate the first one as exactly as possible--what could be less real than that? But people don't want natural; natural is what we want to get away from when we watch TV."

Aniko Bodroughkozy, professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, further criticizes these shows for mimicking the traditional sitcom cast-types. She contends that, "The highly contrived form and typecasting give the viewer a high degree of familiarity, easy enjoyment and easy communal water-cooler discussion the next day. Just as soap operas used to do in the past, these shows provide a context for people to get together and gossip where they won't offend anybody or step on toes."

But more than just water-cooler gossip has to result from the hours devoted to watching this show, is there not any more compelling reason for the million dollar commercial spots that air in between each episode?

Bodroughkozy would like to think so: "Survivor, like all successful television, is polythematic, an open text that allows different readings. People can use the show as a launching pad to think about and discuss the workplace, capitalism and relationships in 21st century."

While such a discussion would be admirable, the theoretic debate is most likely reserved for the academic sphere. So where does that lead the thousands of "average" viewers? Not contemplating capitalism and gender politics, that's for sure. Most viewers would respond, "It's entertaining." That answer should suffice, but it doesn't. Why?

Do we need to press for a more introspective self-analytical response? Does even entertainment have a deeper level of denotation and connotations lurking under the surface? Are we so in awe of the stupidity, idiocy, pettiness, and falseness of these shows that we conclude there must be an ulterior reason for people to devote so much time and subsequently advertisers so much money? Anything to rationalize the apparent wastefulness of the masses.

Dr. Peter Swirksi offers a piece of psychological reason that aids in this rationalization: The enamoration with reality tv shows reflects the subconscious anxiety and instability of individual's lives in today's modern culture. He explains, "There's a tremendous vacuum in our lives, an existential crisis where so many people live very boring lives that don't have a touch of reality--that's why we desperately seek that touch of reality, be it reality TV, collectibles, or people getting plastic surgery to look like celebrities."

Are we living vicariously through our TVs? Let's hope not. However, the not so "real" emotion delievered through these shows provokes the viewers to a "real" reaction. And in that reaction comes affirmation of ourselves and our roles in the "reality" of our own lives.

So in the end, does it not matter if what is on the screen isn't real, only if our emotional reaction to it is?


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