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Not a Pretty Picture Show - April 17, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

During the prior century, Marshall McLuhan came up with a theory that mass media would specifically alter the way in which individuals experienced the world. McLuhan believed that the means of deliverance itself (i.e., sound, print, film, etc.) used to transmit the message would fundamentally influence the texture of cultural strands and how they would be woven into the fabric of collective perception.

One wonders just what Marshall McLuhan would have to say about the latest generation of reality TV shows? He of course speculated that the impact of the television medium upon our cultural consciousness would be great. But could anyone have foreseen the emergence and popular success of this peculiar genre?

The shows purport to exhibit real people dealing with real challenges. Yet more often than not, there is evidence of pretense throughout. Participants seem to be chosen for their telegenic qualities, relegating other factors to a lesser tier. As the reality phenomenon spreads from network to network, the competitive edge seems to demand that locations and situations become more and more exotic, out of the ordinary and covertly sensual. Hidden from sight on the limited vista of the television screen are the lights, microphones, cameras and crew that accompany any such production.

It is a time-tested adage that people receive a vicarious thrill while watching others perform activities in which they themselves would be unable to participate or prone to avoid. Motion picture and television presentations of these sorts have always had a high degree of entertainment value.

But there is a difference with modern-day reality shows. We are not merely observing fictional characters pursuing illusions. Rather, participants of current shows are portrayed as real people engaged in real life. Observers experience a different kind of surrogate existence while viewing.

Based on the most recent variation of the reality show theme, we may be on the verge of becoming a population of twisted Walter Mittys. Two of the latest excursions into feigned spontaneity play upon the audience's frailties in numerous ways.

NBC's contribution, "The Weakest Link," is a surrealistic schoolroom-type nightmare, with a dreaded authoritarian figure in charge of doling out humiliation to contestants. As they watch, viewers will relive with discomfort their own occasions of missed classes, pop quizzes and foolish responses. Someone else appears in the apparition, but the video is in real time.

So too is the cruelty. It is one of the common threads found within these shows. The television audience witnesses a progression of abuse, a kind of blanket malice toward all. The realistic feel of the presentation makes it all the more harsh.

UPN's warped venture into romance and courtship is called "Chains of Love." This appears to be a sordid scenario of intimacy and then rejection. In the first program, a man is chained to four women for four days and must eliminate one woman a day. The imagery is base, but worse yet is the manner in which the women must lobby to avoid being discarded. Conjoining a man to four women and having the male cast off one woman at a time combines a sort of soft brutality with a subject matter that would previously have been considered unsuitable for conventional television network use.

As the relatively mild "Survivor" program carved a path for the not so innocent "Temptation Island," so too it appears that the genial "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has morphed into the cold-blooded show, "The Weakest Link." A similar tendency can be seen in the bread and butter programming of TV networks - the sitcom. As plot lines and language push the envelope of decency, parents must shield the eyes and ears of their children during what used to be called the family hour.

Television is notorious for lacking innovation when it comes to competition. There is usually an attempt to copy any show that is getting high ratings. This is not to say that all copycat efforts succeed. FOX's reality show, "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire," turned into a satire of itself.

On the flip side is Time Warner's success, a wholesome show by comparison called "Popstars," in which a musical group is created, and a record is produced and promoted. But as TV networks look for more and more sensationalistic programming concepts to capture the attention of the American viewer, our most deeply held attitudes and values are in danger of being "voted off" the cultural island.

Only time will tell if this apparent fad continues to burgeon. If so, it may "massage" the way society interprets the meaning of reality. Unfortunately, reality programming could be the signpost that forecasts the direction our collective psyche is headed. It's not a pretty picture show.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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