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2003-04-01 Guilty of watching Reality TV

If a concept is seen to work on TV, it is imitated and then overworked to exhaustion. In the last few years we have seen a huge increase in supposed `reality TV', though much of it seems far removed from reality to me. I will leave aside the sick, horrid `realism' on a vast scale that appears daily on our screens from Iraq.

 

In the same way some of us `rubberneck' when we witness an accident on the motorway, we also seem to revel in watching others suffer humiliation, or witnessing their disappointment as their homes get a facelift, or as they unfurl their innermost secrets or sexual deviances before our very eyes. We clearly have an insatiable appetite for `reality TV', and it is up to television companies to satisfy that appetite. Revenge and humiliation seem to account for much of the appeal of these TV shows.

 

From "Pop Idol" to "Big Brother" to "Jerry Springer", there seems to be a sort of built-in humiliation factor. In some of the `searches for a star'-type programmes, there is an added `fairy-tale' element as well, as masses of `hopefuls' queue for fame and fortune. There is a slim chance that one, or maybe more, will be made famous, but there is a much greater chance that they will be humiliated and so badly deflated that they shelve their dreams and are put off ever appearing in public again. So far, these `star searches', though they make great TV, seem to have proven that the winners have a reasonably limited shelf-life. Though many entrants show definite promise, it proves that talent is by no means everything. I hope I am proven wrong by the exceptionally talented Micky Harte from Lifford, and one or two of the other "You're a star" contestants.

 

We all watched and guffawed at programmes such as "Candid Camera" years ago, or "Murphy's Golden Movies", where a camouflaged Mike Murphy travelled the country setting people up for our amusement. Bottom of the pile here for me has to be the home video style show such as "You've been framed" where we look on as others have accidents, or make total eejits of themselves, their home videos winning them money even though many appear to have been so obviously set-up.

 

On a recent trip to San Diego in California, I turned on my TV late at night and caught a programme called "Cheaters". I witnessed and endured, purely for the sake of this article you understand (!), one of the lowest points in TV history. If you suspected your partner was cheating, you phoned in or logged on to cheaters.com, and by the end of the show the `cheated' could confront their partners with hidden camera proof of their undeniable infidelity. Here the subjects clearly did not know they were on TV.

 

In England, "Wife Swap" gives two married ladies a chance to trade homes and spouses for a few days, though I think sex is not on the cards, but then again who knows what happens off camera? In "Big Brother" we are `flies on the wall' as the contestants eat, sleep, shower, argue, bitch and reveal their innumerable insecurities. This show has produced some successfuls who go on to build careers on TV, such as Brian Dowling and Anna Nolan, but in many cases the programme tries to make a celebrity out of someone who achieved fame for the sake of fame, and that fame again is short-lived. The bottom of the pile here for me has to be "The Osbournes" on MTV. I fail to see any iota of appeal in this hideous helping of their `real' lives. Shows such as Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer and an infinity of others, occupy a vast portion of viewing time on our screens, and merit an entire column on their own.

 

"Survivor" and "I'm a celebrity - get me out of here!" add such vital ingredients as exotic locations, dangerous adventures and skimpy bikinis. In "Fear Factor", we look on as people confront their phobias and end up, for example, being buried alive or eating maggots. From the television company's point of view, `reality TV' is relatively cheap to produce, but on the flip-side, people are less keen to watch repeats of such shows. There was a phase of making `Westerns', so maybe this is the `Reality TV' phase, and maybe it will pass?