Reality TV - How Low Can It Go?
By Sarah Todd
There's a book written by Stephen King called The Running Man He
wrote the book in 1982, and in 1987 it was made into a rather good
film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I remember the first time I
watched that film I thought it was an interesting piece of science
fiction. The thought of people being hunted down and eliminated/killed
for national TV was very unique, and a bit far fetched.
But that was then and this is now. And what was
entertaining fantasy is almost a reality today.
The fantasy that was The Running Man was followed
by the reality show Big Brother. I remember watching South Africa's
first ever Big Brother show. It was a unique, albeit voyeuristic
concept. Nobody I knew would admit to watching it, but we knew
the names of all the housemates, and we would discuss the previous
day's antics every morning at work. It was a novel concept - watching
the behaviour of a crowd of 12 strangers in a house. I remember
the shower being turned on at 9.00 am and 9 pm - and the age restriction
being raised to 16 at those times so youngsters couldn't watch
the housemates showering!
There have been more Big Brother series in South
Africa, but the interest has not been as intense as it was with
the first one. I think the same is true for the other Big Brother
series all over the world. At first it's a big issue - almost
like spying on someone without their consent! It's like being
a legal voyeur. Eventually the novelty wears off, and the initial
attraction is boring. How long does it take before the average
viewer gets tired of watching people eating, drinking and sleeping?
So the producers have to do something to improve ratings/viewership/advertising.
So now we have extra cameras in the bedrooms and bathrooms. And
the producers punish the housemates by withholding food if they
cannot complete a task successfully. So they get uptight and pick
fights with each other. That makes things interesting, for a few
weeks at least.
Big Brother was the start of the dreadful phenomenon
that is Reality Television. Idols, Survival, Meet My Folks, I'm
A Celebrity... take your pick. Almost all of these shows are notable
for the one unpleasant thread that winds its way through each
one - ridicule. In Idols people who believe they have a singing
talent are humiliated by opinionated, rude judges. Viewers can
watch the hopeful contestants burst into tears of anger or humiliation
at Simon Cowell's caustic comments. Their dreams are shattered
in the most unpleasant way, and many viewers sadistically watch
each show, enjoying the sight of lifelong hopes and dreams being
shattered in a really ugly way. In Meet My Folks prospective dates
for a couple's child are subjected to intrusive, personal questions;
in the one episode I watched a girl forced to face up an ex-boyfriend
she'd dumped under terrible circumstances two years prior to the
show! Is there anyone out there who hasn't had a horrible break
up with someone from years gone by? I'm A Celebrity takes many
washed up "stars" and forces them to eat bugs and other
do unmentionable things in a jungle. The audience apparently votes
off the most useless celebrity... well I guess these people ask
for it! They apparently take part in the show hoping to revive
their flagging careers.
I admit - I've watched some episodes of these
shows. But these are nothing compared to Ultimate Makeover.
Viewers can now watch a person - woman or man,
but usually the former - having plastic surgery and professional
advice of how to make the most of him/herself. I've watched one
or two episodes of Ultimate Makeover, and none of The Swan. It
saddens me that some of these girls think the only way they can
be great, successful women is if they change their faces and their
Then they go through what looks like absolute
hell. A facelift... I almost passed out watching the surgeon using
a metal rod to free the flesh and skin from a woman's forehead
so he could LIFT the skin up and stitch it into her hairline.
The probe went down as far as her eyebrow, its outline visible
as the skin was freed from the bone. All in the name of beauty.
Liposuction... shoving a thick pipe in and out
of her stomach as her "fat" (combined with rather copious
amounts of blood) is sucked down a tube into a beaker.
Breast enhancement... shoving a silicon bag underneath
someone's breast with the force of a Mike Tyson punch???
Would we have watched these procedures on television
17 years ago? The answer is no. It was consider invasive and intrusive.
In those days Dallas was considered raunchy!
I'm not condemning those who chose to undergo
surgical procedures. Discovery Channel shows documentaries about
people who desperately need plastic surgery. I recall one show
featuring a policeman whose face was burned off when her car caught
fire following an accident while on duty. Anothr case told of
a woman who lost her entire eye socket to cancer. She wept after
the plastic surgeon replaced the missing bone so she could wear
an artificial eye. But is reality TV taking the world's obsession
with beauty and youth a little too far? Or is it the media again
- taking our tolerance levels to the max? After all, viewer figures
and show ratings mean greater advertising and hefty profits! Perhaps
they want to see how much we can take before it becomes boring
and we start flipping channels. Are they preying on insecure,
desperate people in the hope that ratings will jump?
It started in a house. We observed people like
laboratory rats, watching them in a controlled environment. We
held the key to whether they stayed or whether they left. It evolved
into a talent show, where again we had the power to vote for the
winner, and vote out the losers.
Today we can sit with an insecure young woman
while she has her appearance changed to meet what she believes
is society's criteria. We watch every pain filled moment - whether
she weeps with physical pain from her nose job, or cries because
she realises she will never look the same again. We suffer with
her, but don't have to endure the reality she's experiencing.
Many times one of the "victim's" friends or a family
member has contacted the programme because he/she feels this person
needs plastic surgery. Sometimes the person's partner has contacted
the show! Yes, I know that often the "victim" herself
wants the makeover, but the thought that someone who is supposed
to care about this person just the way he or she is puts a partner's
name forward is sad. To me anyway... what happened to loving someone
for him or herself, despite a few extra pounds or some wrinkles?
So where does reality TV go from here? And how
close are we to shows like The Running Man?
I think we're almost there.