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The Future of Reality... Television
by Rodrigo Dorfman ||
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"I think this is something quite different from the usual cyclical pattern of network programming. Something much bigger is going on."

     - Brian Graden, President of Programming for MTV, speaking on CNN last year about the popularity of reality-based television shows.

     What is it that gives Reality Television its extraordinary popularity, its monumental, almost unstoppable power? Are we just experiencing another passing fad; some superficial mass hysteria that will soon subside, as some cultural critics would like us to believe? Or is there, in the unwittingly prophetic words of Brian Graden, "something much bigger going on"? After all, there was a time when "Big Brother" was associated with tyrannical surveillance and the suppression of our freedoms. And yet, today, it's a Reality Television game show that symbolizes this great democratic experiment we call the Digital Revolution. How did we ever get here, and what's going on?


The Origins of Reality Television

The Train Pulls in the Station

Nobody seems to know the exact time and place the term "Reality TV" first came into existence. I've asked countless media experts, but none could supply a definitive answer. A marketing executive at Glaxo even told me he had heard that the concept had been secretly tested and designed by a powerful marketing firm in New York City. I found no evidence to confirm or deny this wonderful rumor. How do we then attempt to grasp the beginnings of such a mysterious and elusive conceit? When in doubt, we can always go back to myth. We can always trace Reality TV back through the fantastic history of the moving image in our century.
     In the beginning there was a train. How can anyone forget the response of that famous crowd, sitting in a dark movie theatre in 1895, as they screamed, desperately trying to escape the oncoming virtual locomotive screeching toward them in Louis Lumiere's film Arrival of a Train? Though the audience quickly became conditioned to the illusion, during that fateful moment, they truly believed in the physical "reality" of that image. It's an instant that we collectively never forgot, an instant still shattering through our consciousness, subtly shaping our present day relationship with the virtual world of Reality TV.
     After all, every moving image since then contains the possibility of the "rea.l" In some sense, back in 1895, we assimilated that fateful "arrival of a train" and turned it into a collective contract with the flood of images that were about to consume us. We agreed to place our faith in the possibility that through the consumption of those images, we could touch the "real," and they in return, would bestow upon us the marvelous illusion that we actually did. "Reality" as we knew it would never be the same.

The Two Oceans Meet

In 1928, barely 32 years after the beginnings of this organic and emotional relationship, the first television set was sold in the US. By 1931 there were 40,000 sets by 1960, 90% of all homes had at least one; and by 1986, the average American household watched television for more than seven hours a day. The advent of television radically altered not only the way we look at our surroundings but also the way we imagine them. For the first time, we did not have to venture into the world in order to see it. The world would come to us every single night as we sat in our living rooms, entranced, so to speak, within the familiar walls of our private domains. It was a revolutionary moment in political history. Our sense of "community" was forever altered to now include the notion of a "television community," bound not by physical, face to face interactions, but by participation in the ups and downs of the Nielsen Ratings. This sense of community was dramatically accentuated in 1951, with the first televised broadcast of a nationwide program. Edward R. Murrow, in the first of his See It Now series, literally joined America from coast to coast as he looked upon a split-screen image of the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, exhorting his audience to marvel at the extraordinary sight of witnessing, for the first time, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans simultaneously!
     Reducing the entire continental United States to a virtual coming together of two opposite bridges is a fitting metaphor for the mind frame television was inviting its new community to inhabit. It made the virtual real and united opposites. Thus, television created the impression that not only could it transcend Time and Space, but that in the process, it could solve the contradictions of our modern day existence.

The Taming of all Contradictions

"Personal meaninglessness - the feeling that life has nothing to offer - becomes a fundamental psychic problem in the circumstances of late modernity. We should understand this phenomenon in terms of a repression of moral questions which day to day life poses, but which are denied answers."

     -Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity.

Why is it that today so many people feel that their lives are incredibly mediated, mechanized and secondary? Why is it that if we scratch the surface of our corporate and consumer skins we experience such disaffection, such discontent? When more than a hundred million Americans surrender their right to vote every four years; when participation in Civil Society is at an all-time low; when we have no say in the way, other than through consumption, the entertainment industry disseminates our de facto official culture; we can safely claim that we're in the midst of deep crisis. Just as millions live on top of the St Andreas Fault, we all walk private and societal surfaces, full of cracks and structural breaks, that when pressed, release in us that intense and profound need for a sense of belonging, for a sense of the "real." Unfortunately, millions of Americans feel that our remote government/corporations and fractured neighborhoods seem no longer able to nurture this need. How do we then live with the realization that society, as we have constructed it, does not satisfy our hunger for the "real"?
     According to Mark Andrejevic, assistant professor in the Communication Department at Fairfield University, Reality TV, with its technological interactivity, serves as a conduit for the massive contradictions of our modern day society while allowing its consumers/citizens to take part in the democratic dream of the information age.
     "The appeal of the real is inseparable from the promise of interactivity: that ordinary people have a chance to participate in creating the shows they watch and the products they buy, that the uniformity of mass society has been undone," he writes in his upcoming book on Reality TV. "In this respect, the emergence of reality TV needs to be situated within the context of the digital revolution. Interactive media promises to shatter mass society's artificiality," and serve as "a revolutionary challenge to the model of ossified industrial capitalism that characterized 20th Century America."
     This "revolutionary challenge" promises millions of viewers the possibility to channel their disaffection through the liberating powers of interactive technology. The interaction here implies a two way street, "a call and response" structure, which is direct and continual. It offers viewers a way out of the passivity and artificiality of our mainstream fictional entertainment culture. This appeal to our sense of liberation from old economic and cultural forms is crucial, if we're to understand the powerful present day attraction of Reality TV. "They're a great democratic experiment," trumpeted television producer Steven Bochco. "It's like a huge, sophisticated Internet, where all these voices that we haven't heard before are getting a hearing."
      Since the creation of the medium, television entertainment had primarily been seen as the realm of the Hollywood celebrity, the realm of the inaccessible, the realm of the escape. "People watch television for two reasons," Marty Lafferty, CEO of Zoom Culture, a Reality TV production company, explained to me, "Validation, to find themselves, and secondly escape. Those seem to be paradoxical, at opposite extremes, but at the end of the day, that's why people watch anything." The genius of television was then to integrate our sense of self with our desire to be something other than ourselves. When The Real World debuted in 1992, it expanded on this dream-like horizontal division of labor, with the radical notion that "real" people (non actors) could become the actual stars of a successful television show. "The democratizing promise offered by the Internet in the era of e-commerce is not that everyone will be able to participate in a re-vitalized public sphere, but that everyone will be able to participate in politics as celebrity," writes Mark Andrejevic. "Anyone with a Webcam, anyone who makes the final casting call for The Real World, anyone on the street, will be able to participate."

Surveillance as Self-Realization

"The reality of Reality TV is that people are living in a surreal environment; over time they become used to it and they integrate it into their lives."

     - Bruce Toms, Producer of Real World, Road Rules and Love Cruise.

The Real World
was built upon the radical premise that a community of strangers would be "cast" and brought together under one roof for the sole purpose of being filmed and viewed by millions, while "integrating," as Bruce Toms put it, the cameras into their lives. No more veils. No more fictions, artifice, or acting. The Real World gave its audience the possibility to virtually "escape into the real," while offering its contestants the opportunity to literally "find themselves" in the act of being virtualized.
     In other words, in the year 2001, to know thyself, is to know thyself being filmed and to know thyself being watched. Interactivity, as we know it, then becomes much more than just the pushing of buttons in game show. "I've learnt a lot more about myself since I started watching. It is soooo deep when you think about it," said an unidentified Big Brother fan, in a study conducted by Janet Jones, at the University of Wales. Those words were eerily echoed by Dirk, a substitute teacher and a Survivor contestant, who said: "It has changed my life in every respect - my relationship with God and everyone else, myself, the world. Everything was taken away from me. Without all the distractions [of modern life] you have to look inside yourself...." Of course, "looking inside" is only possible for him because he knows that he's been watched. It's clear that this mediated relationship has now become symbiotic. Both the audience and the participants meet, like those two bridges fifty years ago, mirroring each other. They're two virtual communities validating their existence in each other's minds, both joined like once-separated twins in search of the ultimate, "authentic" experience: the search for self-knowledge.
The Coming of Age of Reality Television

"We were manipulated into stereotypes. That wasn't me, it was a caricature of me…. The power of the production is incredible. It's not real. Don't be fooled!"

     - Melanie the female "anti-hero" in Big Brother, U.K. during a recent BBC Panorama special.

The Blind Leading the Blind

The virtues of Reality TV appear many: the audience can relate to the democratization of content as shows give a "voice to the voiceless," producers can cash in on its cheap production values, academics can lose themselves in post-modern reveries and filmmakers can explore the wonders of a new visual and psychological frontier. And yet, behind every great promise lurks the specter of its own corruption. Before we plug in, we should examine what kind of "attachments" come with this exciting new communication technology and what kind of ingredients it contains.
     Leisure, gambling and voyeurism immediately come to mind. In this sense, Reality TV, like most mass phenomena, reflects in part the prevailing values of the society it inhabits. The popularity of these three social activities can be attributed to the conviction that they're manifestations of deeply held aspects of our human nature. Holidays remind us of the spiritual world, faith that chance is on our side, and "observing" other humans is how we're wired, since birth, to gain our experiential knowledge of the world. The degree to which these "needs" are met, in their present form, is another question altogether. Nevertheless, what is clear is that shows like Temptation Island, Love Cruise, Survivor and Big Brother, are placing an emphasis away from the elements of communal existence we considered essential to our "reality" for millennia ("Work Ethic" and "The Family"), and moving rapidly toward the creation of ficticious communities whose central values are ruthless individual competition, sexual exploitation, escapism, short term profit and the absence of any social responsibility. Bypassing past social contracts, Reality TV allows us, therefore, the possibility to imagine a world far removed from any historical and political perspective.
     I was able to taste firsthand this momentous shift in our political consciousness when I literally came face to face with four influential Reality Television executives during a panel discussion at the 2001 Double Take Film Festival. It was an extraordinary event by any stretch of the imagination. Our image makers rarely venture, in the flesh, so to speak, into the "real" world and submit themselves to the unpredictability of a democratic process. The most revealing statement that day was made by Keith Quinn, whose company Live Planet is producing the groundbreaking show The Runner, when he compared Survivor to The American Dream, the Oscar-winning Barbara Kopple documentary about the struggles of working class Americans during a long and divisive strike. "Basically, in American Dream there's a lot of psychological biases," Keith Quinn said. "People were behaving in irrational ways because they were negotiating out of passion and over commitment. What happens in Reality TV shows is that people get under pressure and negotiate in the same sort of ways. We see the same sort of game theory played amongst people on American Dream and Survivor, or The Real World."
     We're way beyond apples and oranges here. You can mix those up and you're not going to do much damage to your digestive system. But when you start placing the exact same value on a real community of working class families as you would a virtual group of contestants on a TV show, there's a chance that you have lost your bearings. It was breathtaking. In one instant, the whole history of Labor in America was summarily transformed into "a game theory," that helps us appreciate and integrate Survivor into our lives. This disturbing opinion is by no means an isolated aberration. Listen to what Jeff Probst, host of Survivor, had to say: "People [on Survivor] became more aware of themselves and who they are. There were moments of clarity when people realized all of a sudden, 'Hey, this is no different than the place I work.' ...People have to get along." Or what about Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in NY., when he stated that: "Survivor and Big Brother are to TV what jazz is to music. They both use improvisation to tell a story." When Thompson compares Reality TV to jazz, he's positioning himself as an heir to those two virtual bridges that came together fifty years ago. He takes jazz, one of the great innovative and subversive forces in the cultural history of the 20th century, brings it out of its historical context by reducing it to an "improvisational" technique, and then welds it to the bridge of Reality TV.
     Reality TV, then, reinforces a world where the confusion and amnesia about the nature of the economic, political and cultural forces that shape our daily lives, actually become precious virtues. There's an inverse equation at work here. The more removed you are from any social responsibility or structural analysis of the society you live in, the better equipped you'll be to revel in the pseudo-liberating effects of this new communication technology.

Big Brother Loves You
To Death

"We're talking about transforming the Internet from a medium of communication to a medium for delivering manufactured goods."

     - Marshall Burns, founder of an e-commerce firm called Ennex, Wired.
"The paradox of a surveillance-based economy is that it pretends to individuals that they count - that they are worthy of individual attention - even though all it really wants to do is count them - to plug their vital statistics into a marketing algorithm."

     Mark Andrejevic, from his upcoming book Getting Real: The Prime-Time Rehabilitation of Big Brother.

As I went deeper into the virtual world of Reality TV, investigating and navigating through endless portals, web sites, chat rooms and personal web cam sites, I discovered very little political or economic criticism of the medium itself. There was the occasional mention of a riot near Paris or Chicago or that Big Brother has been banned in Turkey. Even the zany survivorsucks.com, a site dedicated to sabotaging Survivor by infiltrating the show's gimmicky secrets, seemed completely co-opted by the media hype. At best, Reality TV was criticized for its "sexual" content, at worst, it was cynically dismissed as popular trash in the making by reputable television critics. This is problematic. This kind of perspective only serves to reinforce the image of Reality TV as a voice of the masses under siege by an intellectual elite who doesn't want to relinquish power. It completely obscures the central question raised by the advent of Reality TV: who controls the information and for what purpose?
     In this sense, probably the most chilling revelation to come out of my investigation, was the realization that Reality TV is making surveillance not only fun and essential to our sense of identity, but also fundamental to our new emerging information economy. As Mark Andrejevic startlingly points out in his book, we're witnessing nothing less than the actual "rehabilitation" and transformation of Orwell's "Big Brother" into a consumer-friendly marketing strategy for the future customization of all our daily needs. According to him, "the digital economy anticipates a world in which we will add value to products by allowing ourselves to be monitored: thus even when we are in the privacy of our homes, traveling, vacationing, and so on, to the extent that we are generating demographic information about ourselves, we are participating in the creation of valuable databases that allow for the customization of products and services. We are generating value (working) by being watched." And I might also add, by watching. All of a sudden, "interactivity" loses its democratic and progressive radiance. Those millions of screens open up the very dark possibility that we're being transformed into a new type of citizen consumer conditioned to "individuate" itself from society, all the while equating "freedom" and "authenticity" with self disclosure and surveillance.

The Future of Reality

"I'm not opposed to reality programming ipso facto. Out of the crucible of improvisation, great things can emerge. It just depends on who's in charge."

     - Norman Mailer.

The issues raised by the advent of Reality TV are seismic to say the least. Internet and broadcast technology have forever radically altered the way we communicate with each other and with ourselves, allowing for the dissemination, from one corner of the planet to another, of images, sounds and words straight into the voracious living rooms of our minds. On a daily basis, we construct new virtual communities, imagining ourselves gathered around bonfires of pop idols, NASDAQ numbers, human rights issues - and yes, Reality TV shows.
     If the function of culture is to find a connection between the private and the public spheres of existence, between our inner worlds and its outer forms, then the confusion that reigns today in the mixing of those realms should not be taken lightly. When private feelings are confessed over loudspeakers and pop psychology engulfs metaphysics, when we become accustomed to surveillance cameras in our bathrooms and the virtual merges with the "real," it's time to ask ourselves some difficult questions.
     On a recent visit to New York City, I was struck by the incredible proliferation of billboards. I hadn't been there since Time Square was taken over by Disney and Giuliani and I have to confess, I was overwhelmed by the relentless waves of marketing messages washing into the public spaces near and around 42nd and Broadway. One could not look down the street without being stormed by bright colored commercials that the mind, by its very nature, could not ignore.
     I felt caught up in a flood of information I did not control. It was a flux that kept on coming, wave after wave, urging me to willfully participate in my own drowning. A giant flood is indeed brewing on the horizon of our digital future and we need to be consciously prepared. Sitting at cross winds of a deep historical transformation where the values and foundations of our personal and communal identities are up for grabs, it may be time to ask ourselves if this future will also bring us a flood of revelations. As Norman Mailer, put it, "it all depends on who's in charge."
     Are you?

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