HomeOpinion & AnalysisIs reality still a friend of ours?

Is reality still a friend of ours?


PICTURE this: two teams of hard young contestants, each of them a bag of squirming appetites, battle to beat each other at a task set by Donald Trump.

The losers win a trip to the boardroom where they are encouraged to turn on each other. Trump, whose character trademarks are an improbable bouffant comb-over and a fleshly lipped pout, picks who gets expelled and finally delivers the show’s punch line “You are fired.”

The winners meanwhile, get to marvel at how much the boss is making from each episode and the privilege of making a small contribution by winning a particular task in front of millions of viewers who are filled with amazement and a tinge of envy.

“The Apprentice” represents one of several genrés of reality television that has shaped the entertainment business where consumers are the junkies desperate for a fix.

How did reality TV emerge as the perfect on-screen guide to the reality of society? It all began as an experiment conducted in 1976 when a television crew moved in and filmed a typical suburban family to produce a show called “An American Family”.

Loud and their children allowed the television crew to observe and film their every move. The show focused mainly on the shaky foundation of their marriage.

The series came to an end as the couple divorced the home broken up and everyone went their separate ways. Viewers had become hooked on the show as they watched the Loud family’s folly with fascination and could not tear their eyes away from the Loud’s pitiful fate. The audience applauded itself for being cultured and thanked God that their struggles were insignificant when compared to the Louds.

What was most apparent in the American Family show was that when the TV cameras turn your squabble into society’s famous scandal and relays your family reaction to your immediate neighbours and strangers throughout society, it changes things. When people are being filmed by a crew no matter how unobtrusive, they start to act for the camera. They manufacture dramatic moments and overreact to events.

Who is to say that the Louds might not have worked through their family tensions on their own? The TV cameras subtly goaded them to sharpen the edges of the family drama to give it shape and theatrical impact as they played to the gallery.

It set a precedent for most reality shows where simply being was overtaken by the fascination to perform for an audience.

Once anybody is brought closer to a camera lens and becomes aware that they are being filmed, they hold themselves differently and behave a different way. After sitting through and watching with bated breath as survivor contestants slugged it out in the jungles of Hawaii Island for a million dollars prize money do we feel convinced that the show is a likely illumination of our society?

Despite the nuggets of wisdom that drop periodically from the shows, social analysts have been pointing out the occasional signs that reality TV’s creative spirits are running out of compelling ideas.

The National Broadcasting Corporation publicity people have been at pains to point out the educational aspects of “The Apprentice” going as far as making claims that some universities are making the show “required viewing for MBAS”. Business school spiffily denies it. However, it has not discouraged the students from taking the show seriously.

Why is society so addicted to reality TV? Reality TV taps into the basic human impulse of gossip and social snooping which are part of the glue that keeps a society cohesive.

We read novels and watch plays for the same reason we cannot resist the urge to snoop into the bathroom cabinets when we are using someone else’s bathroom. Few people would admit that they watch their neighbours comings and goings and even fabricate stories about them.

Many might take umbrage to the fact that we are all to some degree nosy neighbours because it is second nature for us to be so.

We cannot avoid peeping through the lace curtains when new neighbours are moving in. How does one block their ears when hearing the neighbours arguing especially when you know that they do not see you?

Reality Tv therefore gives us what we all want, in a well-lit clearly filmed and cut into palatable forty or hourly segments. We believe that is the kind of reality we can deal with as we ready ourselves for endless variations of totally fake reality.

Before all professional complainers come out of hibernation to drone on about the evils of reality TV let raise a cheer in its defence. Reality shows are not always about women shamelessly using their sex appeal to get what they want and men bumbling from one disaster to another.

Reality shows have also helped revive the unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Game shows such as Who wants to be a Millionaire? Has a universal appeal and has become the most popular franchised show around the globe with its format sold to 42 countries covering 80 countries.

Although its critics are quick to point out that it reveals that universally people are really interested in money, they ignore that it cuts away the political correct baggage that has steadily accumulated around the business ladder to success.

The show was originally called Cash mountain and its producer David Briggs spent three years persuading ITV to take it on, and as they say; the rest is history. Today everybody from heads of state, to domestic workers has become addicted.

The greatest appeal of the show is that the answer to a question is dependent on where one is playing from. For example what is a rat? In India the contestant will say a rodent.

In Australia a rodent would be a wrong answer because an antipodean rat is a marsupial. For those in Peru a rat is food.

 Harriman Chidawanyika is a consumer psychologist.

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