Pop culture phones home

Add8hm_3 Reality programming came up in conversation today, and everyone took turns putting the boot in.  Me too.  We scorned it in suspiciously well informed detail. 

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. 

4 thoughts on “Pop culture phones home

  1. Kevin Marks

    Hell’s Kitchen is a debased version of the splendid Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, which BBC America repeat continually. In these, Ramsey has a week to fix broken restaurants, and while he may swear at people, he is communicating a deep knowledge of his craft.
    This fits my Greek God theory of US Reality TV; UK Reality TV tends to be more like a stern parent – see ‘You Are What You Eat’ and ‘How Clean is Your House?’ for more examples.

    Greek God theory:


  2. Independent George

    Virginia Postrel noted your comment that Reality programming also serves as a way for a divergent culture to stay in touch, but I’m afraid I don’t agree. I can’t help but notice that reality programming itself has diverged into highly specialized niches. Take, for example, Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’ and Food Network’s, er, ‘The Next Food Network Star’. On the surface, one might easily file them both under the (already specialized) category of ‘competitive food reality show’, but they in fact compete for entirely different audiences.

    Top Chef is about seasoned, professional artisans working at the peak of their abilities, and targets upper-income professionals, probably childless, with the disposable income to seek out the high-end restaurants of the contestants & guest judges, and shop at the stores selling the expensive ingredients & equipment plugged on the show. TNFNS (my apologies for the abbreviation, which I generally find as irritating as convenient), by contrast, features home chefs easily accessible to a broader audience; it’s specifically meant to be replicated by middle-income home cooks with families.

    Interestingly enough, I believe Top Chef actually actually draws higher ratings despite the much more specialized target demographic (confirming, perhaps, the Long Tail; anecdotally, I note that Top Chef fans are much more devoted to the show than TNFNS viewers).

  3. pat crane

    KEVIN: I’m another fan of Kitchen Nightmares. I think it should be required watching for would-be consultants in MBA school! Ramsay does an unbelievable job of diagnosis, communication, rebuilding….. while having to deal with human psychology at its greatest and worst. Chris Elliott did great takeoff on KN on the Letterman show a while back — went in to fix Le Bernardin in NYC!

  4. Seamus McCauley

    The main problem I find with reality TV is that it offers so brutally sanitised a subset of reality that it’s difficult to learn very much about our actual culture from it. Take the UK’s RT cause celebre Big Brother. Every year it seems someone is thrown off the show for being racist (or at least for saying something that the programme makers apparently think is possibly racist).

    The learning from which, I think, is not that racism is unacceptable but that it is so widespread and commonplace amongst the general population that the contestants keep doing it on live TV even in the face of the knowledge that to do so invites more-or-less certain eviction. And yet an allegedly “reality” TV show cannot admit this.

    A version of reality with no racism is, of course, preferable to one rife with it: but it is manifest from the programme that this is not the reality we have, merely the one that is broadcast to us. (One might argue this is the only way in which reality TV is not real and everything else broadcast is an accurate reflection of British culture. It’s possible of course, but I’m inclined to assume mediocrity.)

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