Then we all took turns on the high horse: The rabble have broken into the castle of broadcasting! This is the end of civilization as we know it! This is a ferocious attack on taste, discernment and elites! Run for your lives!
I get the argument, and I especially like the phrase that calls RP the "theater of humiliation." There is a lot of gratuitous cruelty. I take Hell’s Kitchen to be exhibit A. The Joe Schmo Show is exhibit B.
But there are other things to say about this cultural form:
1) Reality programming is instructive. Pam and I watch Project Runway. I see a new design come down the runway, I take my money and I place my bet. Out loud, so that Pam can hear, I say what I think. And eventually I discover whether my judgment bore any resemblance to the experts who eventually hold forth.
It’s clear that some education is taking place. My judgments diverge less and less. This means that this kind of reality programming is actually making me a more discerning observer of the world of fashion. It is helping me internalize my own modest mastery of the code.
2) Reality programming also serves as a way for a divergent culture to stay in touch. Now that things have become more various and more diverse, divergence is a real problem. It is hard for any one part of other culture to remain within shouting distance with any other part. Common ground is scarce.
Reality programming gives the culture of plentitude a chance to phone home. The Real Housewives of Orange County is ethnographic gold. Horrifying, yes. Gold, yes. Cougars are glimpsed in Age of Love, kids in Kid Nation, 16 year olds in My Super Sweet 16, gays in Boy Meets Boy. child rearing in The Baby Borrowers. (It is very hard to know what the Flavor of Love helps us see, but the boys in the lab are working on it.) Of course we would not want to make these programs authoritative sources of information, but for a culture that is an exploding star, it does help us stay apprised of one another’s movements.
3) Reality programming is not just cheap TV, it is responsive TV. Surely, one of the most sensible way for the programming executive to get back in touch with contemporary culture is to turn the show offer to untrained actors who have no choice but to live on screen, in the process importing aspects of contemporary culture that would otherwise have to be bagged and tagged and brought kicking and screaming into the studio and prime time. Reality programming is contemporary culture on tap. It is by no means a "raw feed." That is YouTube’s job. But it is fresher than anything many executives could hope to manage by their own efforts. In effect, reality programming is "stealing signals" from an ambient culture, helping TV remain in orbit. (Mixed metaphor alert. Darn it, too late.)
This is an era in which we are inclined to issue lots of brave talk about cocreation, open source, and dynamic institutions. We speak of breaking down the citadel that separate the corporation from the real world. Well, this is actually what it looks like (for certain purposes). And funny old TV may in fact be one of the first meaning makers to figure out how we solve this particularly thorny problem. This, in turn, would make reality programming not the end of civilization as we know it, but a test case in what comes next.
Yes, of course, in every case, the reality program insists on a preposterous pretext, and this in turn misshapes the behavior that gets on the screen. I wonder if there are options here.
The 08/08 issue of Entertainment Weekly has several goods pieces on Reality programming. It was the inspiration for this piece.