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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 body shape.

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.

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