Think about how this works for a second. People come home from a day of actual reality to sit in front of a TV and watch what are in form if not name game shows, which have been dubbed “reality” as if they were completely organic situations to which ordinary people respond in a true emotional manner rather than what they are, which are situations as completed and totally scripted as any sitcom or drama and to which carefully screened and auditioned contestants respond to in a manner which they think will best get them the most exposure per hour of airing.
As for the carrot supposedly held out for these contestants, the million dollars or dream house or dream husband or whatever it is that these people are supposedly willing to humiliate themselves on national TV for is completely and utterly secondary. The real goal of all these people is to transform themselves wholly and forever into a commodity.
They desperately want to brand themselves as a marketable product that may or may not have anything to do with their actual personality; a brand that can, after the game show is forgotten, be sold to: talk shows, books, CDs, commercials, guest bits on TV shows, secondary parts on TV shows, their own TV show, guest bits in movie, secondary parts in movies, and, of course, the ultimate goal for EVERY single “reality” show contestant: starring in a movie.
The business reality behind reality shows has become patently obvious. Basically, “reality” shows are just factories designed to create new celebrities. New celebrities that will be white hot for a short amount of time, but whose ability to maintain being famous will then tail off and, ultimately, will be mostly forgotten. Why spend so much energy creating short-term celebrities? For the exact same reason that “reality” shows are seemingly on every channel at every time: Because it’s cheaper.
TV and film and record producers can make an amazing amount of profit from new celebrities. But the longer the celebrities’ time at the top, the more expensive he becomes to hire and the less profit can be made off him. The perfection of reality shows is that they don’t star anyone in the first place and therefore are dirt cheap to make. But beyond that comes the added bonus of creating a star or two or three out of it, allowing the marketers to make even more money, knowing they won’t have to cut into their profit margin when the reality star hangs around for five or ten years. The luster won’t last nearly that long.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this was ABC’s recent foray into the celebrity reality show subgenre. Of course, the celebrities on these kinds of shows are C or D list. But ABC did one better by hiring Trista from The Bachelor. Or was it The Bachelorette. Here we have the bizarre situation of a losing contestant on one reality game show who was brought back to become a star of another reality game show who is now appearing as a celebrity on another reality game show. And just what exactly is Trista’s claim to fame? To celebrity? To stardom?
Her willingness to make out with complete strangers on TV.
The only way that a capitalist economic system can continue to function once everybody has access to what they need in order to survive is to manufacture and sell the myth that people need other items in order to survive happily. The system works no differently in the entertainment business; in fact the entertainment industry could not survive otherwise. Long ago, Hollywood figured out a way to convince people that they need celebrities in order to live a happy life.
The only problem was that as celebrities got more famous they became more expensive to maintain and so cut into profits. Yet when they tried to create copies, most often these copies failed to capture the imagination. How many new “Cary Grant” “Marilyn Monroe” and “James Dean” copies have tried to be sold to us? It can’t be done. Because these and other huge stars were branded so completely that trying to recreate them is an exercise in futility. The irony, of course, is that many of those presented as copies of superstars have actually been more talented, but star quality is a difficult thing to recognize.
America needs a never ending infusion of new celebrities. Or so Hollywood would have us believe. And nothing could possibly be better than creating a new kind of celebrity. One that produces huge profits immediately, that won’t last long enough at the top to demand exorbitant salaries, and that don’t have the talent or charisma to become irreplaceably branded in the hearts and minds of the audience. You think it would be difficult to recreate a Clay Aiken or Trista? Or Joe Millionaire? Or any of the endless parade of contestants from Survivor who have been used on magazine covers to move product in grocery store checkout lines?
Hollywood has at last found the Holy Grail for producing disposable, high-profit celebrities. And with American audiences seeming no longer to care at all about quality in their prime time programming, and there seeming to be no point at which sheer unadulterated shame can prevent a reality show idea of coming to fruition (I didn’t think it could get any lower than a show detailing the everyday life of the nobody and talentless daughter of a dead gangster who is reputed to have more blood on his hands than George W. Bush), it appears that we’re going to be in for at least another decade in which people with real talent are forced to share the stage with those having yet to prove their talent lies in anything but possessing the ability to trade in all shreds of their humanity in order to become yet another commodity.