Reality television, although it seems to have been birthed by MTV’s “Real World” to many of us, has roots that stretch back to before we were born. There was “Candid Camera,” and in 1973, PBS’s “An American Family,” that documented the Loud family and the divorce of Bill and Pat Loud and the coming out of their son Lance. We’ve seen “Cops,” and “America’s Most Wanted,” and others of that sort. Reality television has always been successful, but today, where you can find a reality series during prime time on almost any night of the week, the fascination seems to have crossed a few boundaries and become a sick American obsession.I’ve always been one to keep most aspects of pop culture at arm’s length, but reality TV has permeated the American mass media so much that it’s impossible to stay away from. I admit, even I was suckered into a show – last fall I would forego most anything in order to see “Average Joe” every Monday night. I felt a little guilty at first for getting my pleasure by watching these poor men be humiliated by trying to rock-climb in order to win the heart of a beautiful girl; a girl who, had she not been enticed onto the show by the lure of fame, would have never looked twice at any of the men there. With my conscience yelling at me every Monday, I watched grown men cry on my television – real men, not actors. Their feelings were being trampled, all for the sake of the entertainment of the masses.
I’ve always been bothered by other people’s public humiliation. I’m always embarrassed for the actor that stumbles over their lines in a play or the girl who trips down the crowded stairs in Main Hall. I couldn’t watch “American Idol” because watching Simon tear apart the dreams of hopeful kids in front of millions of viewers was too much for me. Apparently, I’m in the minority with my empathy, and reality TV is now the norm, and the more people who are hurt, the better.
It’s disturbing that this phenomenon, which actually started out innocent enough (“six strangers put in a house to find out when people stop being polite, and start being real”), keeps growing and shows no sign of slowing down. Most people see “Survivor” as being the start of the recent massive resurgence of reality series. “Survivor” was innocent enough in its plot, but now shows are created with the blatant intention of hurting and embarrassing real human beings. “Average Joe” exploits the fat and the nerdy. “Temptation Island” strives to tear couples apart. The moral fiber of our country is unraveling on prime time television!
Aside from the sickness of getting our pleasure from other people’s pain, we’re even making a joke out of the concept of love. To hold contests where the prize is someone who’s been casted as an ideal mate, to attempt to choose your mate from a group of people selected by money-hungry casting agents, to claim that you’re completely in love (after what, six months?) with John while on last week’s episode you were making out with Steve and crying because you were so torn between the two is to make a mockery of love. Now certainly, I’m no romantic, I’m not even a fan of love, but it sickens me that the best thing we can come up with for mass entertainment is to make a mockery of love and humiliate people for all the world to see. Where are our moral standards? Where is our empathy for human feelings and emotions?
Now, I understand that the people who get involved in these shows do so willingly, but is that an excuse to so cruelly and cold-heartedly exploit them? Don’t we have a thousand other things we could be thinking about (War. Health care. Education and our ever-increasing tuition.)? Do we like to watch others being exploited so that we can feel just a little bit better about our own lives? Or has the idea of empathy really just become a foreign concept?
I don’t have to tell you that the television industry thinks of little besides money, and a plea to their moral side would do no good. Change will only come when this obsession passes and is no longer profitable. And that won’t happen until we can tear ourselves away from these shows and develop a little bit of concern for our culture’s moral fiber.