Reality Corrupted
> 6/1/2006 9:24:11 AM

There is some debate about where so-called "reality television" came from--one minute we were all happily enjoying quality fiction programs like "Cheers" and "Golden Girls" and the next minute we seemed to be engulfed in a fog of low production costs and hammed up emotions. A PBS show, An American Family, is often pointed to as one of the first instantiations of what we now call reality television, but the truth is more likely some combination of documentary cinema and old game/variety shows. Wherever it came from, reality television was here to stay as soon as the first season of MTV's The Real World appeared in 1992.

The prospect of voyeuristically observing 7 "ordinary" people as they interact when "people stopped being polite, and start getting real" connected with viewers across the country. From its very inception though, reality television has been a cultural product fraught with questions and concerns of exploitation, unethical production practices and genuinely unhealthy living conditions.

As with anything in a capitilist society, reality television has undergone a great deal of evolution. Producers respond to their viewers and to their ratings in a competition for commercial interest. This drive to compete for ad revenue fuels something of an arms-race among programs always looking to have the next new reality star and engage audiences with drama and tension that seems to build to often dizzying heights.

Each season, this mentality seems to produce previously unbelievable concepts. No better example exists then FOX's Unanimous, which appeared as part of the their winter line-up. Unanimous saw 9 contestants locked in a bunker, yes, a literal bunker, all competing for $1.5 million. The catch was that for the show to end and for one person to win he had to be unanimously selected by the rest of his competition. The show lasted a paltry 8 episodes, perhaps a testament to audiences refusal to accept the over manipulated "reality."

All of this brings us back to The Real World, in many ways the archetypical reality show. Now in its 17th season, The Real World (this time in Key West) in many ways defines the progression of the reality genre. The first season, set in New York, was as "real" as the show would be. The whole concept was new, so just watching a bunch of twenty-somethings living normal lives was interesting enough for viewers. Cast members went about there lives and engaged in the type of existential discussions that only twenty-somethings can actually have with a straight face.

But sadly, this type of production could not last, and creators quickly realized that to keep folks interested conflict had to be the name of the game. The 3rd season, The Real World: San Francisco, saw the show hit the apex of its cultural significance. A confluence of factors brought about this popularity, but at the center of these was Pedro Zamora, an AIDS educator living with the disease. The first episode aired in June of 1994, and when Pedro passed away six months later, only hours after the final episode appeared, it made national news. His battle with AIDS was the driving force behind much of the season's conflict, with housemates expressing the concerns and biases that permeated the national landscape of the day. None more famously clashed with Pedro than Puck, a brash and obnoxious narcissist, who eventually became the show's antagonist.

With Pedro, MTV producers realized that they had found the perfect Real World character: he was a minority (born in Havana), he was gay (Pedro wed his partner on the show), he was outspoken and best of all, he was sick. The strategy of using a health problem as a plot device has been deployed numerous times since then, most notably in Seattle and San Diego with Lyme disease and cystic fibrosis respectively.

The most recent season has again taken up this charge. In this case however, Paula Meronek, a slim blond from Connecticut, battles depression as well as bulimia and anorexia. When they brought her aboard MTV's producers knew full well that Paula was not well, although in a recent New York Times article Paula confesses to having concealed the severity of her condition during initial interviews. Anyone who has seen the show, even just a snippet of an episode understands how sick Paula is. Her size, her boney limbs and her crippling self-consciousness are all easily graspable within seconds. That producers couldn't have understood this is an out and out lie.

The only thing that we can infer then is that in interviews, and in her frank disclosure on her audition reel that aired as part of the first episode, producers saw a character that could produce the kind of emotion and curiosity that Pedro had over a decade before. This is the real tipping point for debate. On one hand the show's creative team can point to Paula as a spokesperson in educating American viewers about depression and disordered eating, and indeed it plays a central part of the shows plot. But on the other hand viewers sit each week and watch a young woman who is obviously living on the brink. The New York Times recounts one particularly harrowing scene:

Ms. Meronek, who had been drinking heavily, fell apart and later said to another roommate: "I don't think I'm pretty. I don't think I'm thin enough." And then, as the cameras filmed her hyperventilating and wringing her hands, she said: "I don't want anybody to look at me. I don't want people to, like, be around me."

The question has to be asked: at what point would producers have stopped filming and intervened? When she had a seizure? A razor blade at her wrist? (Not to be too cynical or answer my own question, but the cameras would never stop rolling, even if producers did indeed intervene). In her interview with the Times, Paula credits her experience with the show for helping to save her. She did, at the urging of her housemates, seek professional mental health treatment, and she has successfully begun to fight her eating issues. But while the show helped, it simultaneously may have helped dig deeper holes. The very design of the cast's experience--total media blackout, isolation from friends and family, copious amounts of alcohol--is anathema to mental health treatment. As the article is clear to point out, the post-Real World life, one filled with drinking, bars and partying, is also not conducive to fighting depression or eating disorders. To the show's credit, a great deal of information and discussion can be found on MTV's webpage in a section called thinkMTV: Issues on The Real World.

Using a cast member's health issues to drive ratings may be an overt tactic that draws ethical ire, but as the British program Big Brother is demonstrating this season, reality television may be corrupt at its very core. The Channel 4 program, which resembles other Big Brother shows that air in countries around the world, is in its 7th season. Like The Real World, cast members live in a house and just act real. Brother however, introduces the ideas of competition and eviction from the house, which drive conflict, and in turn, ratings. While the new season has seen some of the show's best ratings, it has also drawn criticism from outsiders as well as those on the show.

First there was the inclusion of a housemate with Tourette's syndrome. Accusations of exploitation have flown, while Channel 4 contends that 24 year-old Pete Bennett is simply setting an example of a successful man afflicted with the condition. Then after only a week, 37 year-old Shahbaz Chauhdry walked out of the show after threatening suicide. A British non-profit, The Mental Health Foundation, has assailed the show to protect contestants from the mental health damage they might suffer as cast members on the psychologically rigorous show.

Channel 4 continues to maintain that they put each contestant through thorough psychological assessment before the show and make mental health professionals available at all times, but their actions, like those of The Real World, run counter to their stated desire to protect their cast. This year, as the BBC reports, the Brother house is smaller and contains more glass and mirrors than in previous seasons, a decision meant to decrease the privacy that the cast has while in the house. As of this week, two more contestants have left the show: George Askew wasn't ready to deal with the fame, while Dawn Blake was thrown off for communicating with the outside world. On her way out Dawn made disparaging remarks, accusing the producers of keeping her in the house against her will. In their write up, the BBC also quotes Majorie Wallace of the mental health advocacy group Sane as she harshly criticizes exploitation of mental distress on the Big Brother program.

The web of reality television, complicated by new spin-offs, book deals and psuedo-celebrity status, is a complicated one indeed. At the end of the day, many people would write off the "exploitation" of cast members as something that they brought on themselves--it is true that all contestants are volunteers. But to do that would be to dismiss the part that society plays in idolizing and indeed fetishizing these individuals. The lure of "easy money" and a life lived in the spotlight is enough to draw millions to try out for The Real World or American Idol or even something as illogical as Unanimous.

Clearly, it is in television producers' best interests to find the weaknesses, petty differences and idiosyncrasies of their cast, and expose them to the open air. By doing this, they script and create the drama that keeps butts glued to the couch and eyes glued to the screen. As even a cursory examination reveals, the well-being of those who provide the entertainment almost always takes a back seat to the show and the bottom line. Creating stress for cast members and putting them through the emotional ringer makes for good television.

Reality television, at its core, is about using, and often abusing, those who are willing to do what it takes to get on television. This is not to paint the executives behind these wildly popular shows as malevolent demons, there is only so much that they can be expected to do in their efforts to create cost-effective and engaging entertainment. But perhaps this bottom-line expectation needs to be a little higher. Perhaps we should expect more ethical behavior from those who create television. Perhaps reality television can be redeemed from all-out corruption and exploitation. The question is who will be the first to decide in favor of change: those producing the show, the advertisers who pay the bills or us, the viewers?


The movie Network was a dark satire about this very issue - the story revolves around a mentally imbalanced, but hugely popular, anchorman who's cynically exploited by the network for ratings. It's pretty sick to see something like that come true.--YY
Posted by: YodaYid 6/5/2006 2:56:12 AM

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