Join Greg and Diane every Monday as we debate what’s on our minds. This week: Are reality shows the scourge of TV?
My feelings for competition reality television shows, particularly in Canada, is two-fold. It’s easy to rip on this type of programming as trashy, invasive and stupid, but it’s here to stay. Ever since a little show called Survivor was launched in May of 2000, the television landscape was changed forever.
(Just to be clear, when I refer to reality television, I’m talking about competition shows, not programs like Survivorman, Mantracker, Emergency and programs of that ilk.)
Cheap to produce when compared to scripted series, reality television does appeal to a certain segment of the population that enjoys seeing others at their most vulnerable. For many, the chance to sit down and watch people struggle through their daily lives in a show like U8TV: The Lofters, seek out love on The Bachelor Canada or traverse this country and the world on The Amazing Race Canada is a guilty pleasure. And who am I to judge? I’ve covered countless seasons of reality series and there are a few that I genuinely love to watch and review. TAR Canada, Top Chef Canada, MasterChef Canada, Canadian Idol and Eco-Challenge are competition programs that I’ve enjoyed over the last several years, mainly because they appeal to the adventurer, chef and wannbe singer (if I wasn’t tone deaf) in me. I’m not alone; these shows are consistently at the top of the ratings charts.
I do, however, have a bit of an issue with the recent move of adding “Canada” to the end of an established U.S. product. It’s understandable to do this—the familiarity to the brand means a built-in audience will tune in—but it’s stripping some of the uniqueness away. I fear it will only get worse. The recent CRTC decision affecting independent production companies could mean an abrupt drop-off in new reality series that aren’t homegrown versions of international reality shows.
I proposed this topic as “reality TV is the devil” and figured I’d go moderate and reasonable by explaining no, they’re just Satan’s minions.
But of course that’s an exaggeration. Except for that spate of morally questionable shows like Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire.
I remember watching Survivor with a roommate and thinking: does anyone buy that this isn’t shaped and edited into a ridiculous story? Never mind how disgusting I find the cynical anti-romantic mysogyny of “romantic” reality series like The Bachelor (Canada), but does anyone not roll their eyes at the absolute cheesiness of the repetitively scripted and ridiculous rose ceremony?
The answer of course is mostly no. People enjoy the shows for a variety of reasons ranging from buying into them and loving them to hate-watching them, but many simply find them entertaining and also realize there is some kind of overlord shaping the story we’re seeing, just like any other television show. When the Writers Guild of American started vocally unionizing reality TV writers, it began to be hard to deny there was a story being scripted, and the reality being presented bore no resemblance to reality. Canada’s Smartest Person is not Canada’s smartest person. Canada’s Worst Driver shouldn’t get 15 minutes of fame.
I’ve gotten sucked into some reality competition series (current addiction: The Voice, and I watched a season of Battle of the Blades avidly). I’ve defended some like Dragons’ Den against podcast cohost Anthony Marco’s accusation that they are all based in schadenfruede — wanting to see others fail.
Some reality series are good natured, some are mean spirited, some are ethically dubious. My main objection is I like my fiction to know it’s fictional. But I’d go even further than competition reality shows being the scourge of TV and say it’s been the scourge of the Internet. In the early days of that kind of television, discussion forums struggled with how to enforce “no personal attacks” with free discussion of the characters in a show. When the line between human being and ridiculous TV character blurs, where does our humanity toward the person go? Out the window of course.
That occupies only a small part of my hatred though. For the most part my hatred for reality shows is based on them taking up space on my dial, taking up space in Canadian broadcasters’ CanCon allotment where a good scripted series could be, and the fact that my taste doesn’t rule the airwaves, because reality shows often beat the ratings pants off of a good scripted series.