Reality TV

In David Cronenberg’s film ‘Videodrome’, one character muses, “Television is reality, and reality is less than television.” The film was produced long before the current crop of reality TV shows, in hindsight, ‘Videodrome’ could be interpreted as ‘prophetic criticism.’ There is a problem with so-called reality programming, one that has nothing to do with blurring the lines between news and entertainment. Those lines have been blurry since CNN made ‘sound bite journalism’ a major part of the way people consume the news. The real problem is in the kind of reality this genre presents.

Some critics of reality TV warn it’s only a matter of time before programming such as ‘Survivor’ and ‘Fear Factor’ mutates into Roman-style spectacles of real bloodshed and killing. This is a ridiculous notion. American audiences do not want real pain or anguish. If these shows were truly based in ‘the real world’, nobody would tune in for long. This is the exactly why ‘reality’ television is so popular. The problems of buffoonish and bigger-than-life people are a kind of escapist entertainment.

For all its shortcomings, reality programming offers a type of catharsis. Viewers observe a show’s personalities, comparing them to similar people in their own lives. Heroes and villains for each program are based on how they remind viewers of people they know, love, or loathe. The best reality shows display creative minds at work, developing and unfolding their ideas against a time limit and budget constraints. Monster Garage, Trading Spaces and similar programs have less to do with winning and losing, and more to do with problem solving and innovation.

Unfortunately, many reality shows presents the same concept over and over; Social Darwinism combined with sports. There can be only a single winner, the rest are sent home in defeat. Those willing to do anything at all in order to win make the grade. Contestants who hesitate or wish to preserve their dignity are eliminated.

Presenting the ‘life as eternal competition’ scenario seems to confer a higher value on the winners; the defeated are viewed as weak or unsuitable. Reality television has no middle ground, only winners and losers. This is a major flaw of the concept. Even on the more creative programs like Trading Spaces, rarely is there an episode where the project does not finish on time, or appears flawed. The finished product is always ‘camera-ready’.

Life outside television is anything but black and white. Religion, social mores, sexual roles and family values are all in a constant state of flux. On television, an unsavory ‘us-versus-them’ mentality is presented as a viable philosophy. Reality shows, sports events and political campaigns are informed by this dualistic viewpoint. Reality is more complex, but viewers are constantly bombarded with the opposite notion. But if reality programs can be blamed for propagating an unrealistic philosophy, they must be excused in part by the virtue of being on television.

It is true; reality TV blurs the lines between real news, entertainment and advertising. The future of the genre will be decided by, as always, by focus groups, test audiences and Nielsen ratings. What is popular today will be tomorrow’s old news. The TV industry is essentially the world’s longest running popularity contest.

Some people recognize television as a limited medium, subject to a fickle public. The best way to maintain its integrity is to ignore pressure to cater to a general audience. The ‘us-versus-them’ mentality of reality programming may be pervasive, but there quality alternatives. Worthwhile television does exist, creatively and philosophically far beyond the “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” programs. There is also the ‘off’ button, a trite clichÃ?©, but applicable. A much better approach? Take former Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra’s advice; “Don’t complain about the media,” said the punk rocker, “become the media.”

But how? The internet, cable access TV, self-publishing and the zine phenomenon are all here to stay. The ‘average joe’ can indeed have a voice, if one is willing to invest the time and money to be heard. With Cable Access, there are only minor fees, but the time investment required can be substantial. Check with your local cable access station for requirements. Websites are the electronic version of zines, and info on how to create them are so plentiful that a Google search is all that’s really needed to get started learning how to create a decent web page.

Many people use blogs such as to reduce the need for technical savvy. Indeed, merely
requires you to enter your text and upload it, the rest is done with templates or simple instructions. Blogging is the most economical way to create a counterculture presence on the net. Unfortunately, the ease of use brings with it an overload of
junk sites and bad postings.

Zines, of course, are the paper-and-ink version of blogs and websites. They require more skill and marketing savvy, but the returns on a print zine are much more immediate. To learn about zines and the art of DIY printing, visit to get an immediate education and history lesson on the varied voices of the zine community. The real issue with zine printing is cost-crude xeroxes cost upwards of a dime a page in some areas, and printer ink can be just as expensive. But these costs and the skill required make zines more readable as a rule. This is the advantage to going print-your audience is more accessible to you, and there is less competition. If you can afford to go print-and-paper, the benefits outweigh the cost.

Television, the internet and pop culture all offer something to the masses. Alternative culture gives people with far more specialized tastes and interests a way to give voice to those diverse ideas. In today’s era of print, cable access and the internet, there’s really no reason NOT to let your voice be heard.

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