We didn’t watch a great deal of television in Hong Kong partly because we didn’t get many English channels but primarily because we were too busy. The exercise machines at the Winnipeg YMCA where I do my daily workouts come equipped with televisions, and so now I spend about 90 minutes a day flipping through the nearly 50 channels available. North American television has really changed during the six years we lived abroad. The majority of programs now are reality shows. I’ve watched quite a few and it’s got me thinking about what kind of impact such a glut of reality television might have on people.
It could make you feel dissatisfied with your life. Many of the shows describe transformations. People who are unhappy with their home, or appearance or wardrobe get a complete ‘make-over’. I watched part of a show this morning about a couple who had a nice bathroom but were thrilled after a ‘make-over’ team redesigned the whole thing. When I came home I looked at my two perfectly lovely bathrooms and wondered what a ‘make-over’ team would do with them. Would they add heated floors, seats in the shower, fancy towel racks, additional storage, objects d’ art? Crazy! The last thing I need to do is renovate bathrooms that are already functional and aesthetically satisfactory.
I imagine some of the make-over shows might be good for you. Watching something like The Biggest Loser might motivate you not to let your weight get out of control. Watching Super Nanny might make you realize how important it is to teach your children good behavior and manners when they are young. One morning at the gym I saw a financial make-over show where a young couple had a huge credit card debt and were near bankruptcy. Their financial make-over taught them how to have a balanced family budget. Watching a show like that could serve as a warning to people not to make credit card purchases they are unable to pay off at the end of the month.
I could only tolerate watching a few minutes of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills but that show certainly teaches the lesson that money doesn’t buy happiness.
I have watched a couple of episodes of Hoarders and I’ve been shocked to realize there are thousands of North Americans who can’t get rid of anything and have houses so full of stuff there is no room for them or their families. A show like that certainly teaches the importance of not becoming too attached to one’s possessions.
When I first started seeing all these reality TV shows I thought their target audience must be people with very little education or those looking for an escape from their difficult lives, but I happen to know many very talented, intelligent, happy and accomplished people who are addicted to The Bachelorette, Survivor and Lost. Admittedly some of them feel sheepish and guilty when others discover their infatuation with reality shows. Why do they watch? Maybe for the same reasons I sometimes read romance novels–to escape, to live in a fantasy world for a bit–to imagine myself a different person.
Here’s a couple of questions I’ve been tossing around as I watch these reality shows.
Are we allowing these shows to determine what is real for us instead of figuring it out for ourselves?
Because these shows often tend to manipulate events and people to show lots of negative things like conflict and danger and temptation are we influenced into thinking that everyone’s lives are full of these pitfalls and ours are dull without them?
Is it ethical to exploit someone’s divorce, teen pregnancy, infertility for entertainment’s sake?
If we can vicariously experience dating, childbirth, buying a house, getting married through a reality show will we feel less inclined to invest the time, energy and committment to actually do these things ourselves?
Can the people on a reality show have a real, honest, secure life if everyone is watching them live it? Adults can decide that for themselves, but many reality shows involve children too. I’ve watched one called 19 Kids and Counting where the parents have decided to put their nineteen children on television, even though they don’t let their kids watch television because it is tawdry and immoral. How is the childhood of those 19 kids being effected by the fact they are living their lives in front of a TV audience?
The one reality show Dave and I did follow in Hong Kong was American Idol. We enjoyed the music, getting to know the contestants and predicting who would be the winner each week. I think American Idol is so popular because it makes us believe that dreams do come true, and people can become famous that quickly.
Reality TV may be with us for a long time according to Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, so we’d better get used to it.