Production Values

American Idol lets us feel their pain

The last year of the old millennium is generally credited as the birth of the new format, with Survivor, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and, to a lesser extent, Big Brother dominating prime-time ratings in 2000, but the concept had in fact evolved through any number of experiments in unscripted programming, including The Tom Green Show (1994), The Real World (1992), America’s Funniest Home Videos (1990), COPS (1989), The People’s Court (1981), Real People (1979), and An American Family (1973), all of which take a cue from Candid Camera, Allen Funt’s fly-on-the-wall show that debuted on the small screen in 1948 (after a less euphonious run on the radio as Candid Microphone), and which is generally considered the forerunner of contemporary reality TV.

Clearly, the mechanisms for unscripted programming were well established; what was needed to turn it into a sustainable—profitable—genre was an ethos. In the early 1990s, with little fanfare (and less ethical examination), surveillance footage from both public and private security cameras became a staple of news programs, and soon spread to the rising tide of “infotainment” magazines. The true-crime footage proved so popular that producers began chasing it down themselves—hence COPS, and the now-ubiquitous helicopter shots of suspects fleeing police pursuit. But if pursuing the action produced better results than waiting for something to happen in front of a bracket-mounted camera, how much more exciting would the results be if you provided the players themselves, as well as the incentive to act out on-screen? In the transformation from security tape to reality TV, the very concept of surveillance changed: from being a tool to detect and (at least ostensibly) prevent crime, it became a means of soliciting, if not criminal activity, then at least behavior that falls outside the purview of polite society. This shouldn’t be surprising. Think of our earlier metaphor of the camera hidden behind a one-way mirror. The setup, of course, is the eternal conceit of the cop show. In its initial incarnation, the person in front of the mirror didn’t realize he was being watched, and unwittingly confessed, either verbally or through visual cues; later, as the trope became familiar, the suspect knew he was being watched, but came to disregard the watcher’s presence simply because he was aware of it, and even to act out for the invisible watcher, so that he still ended up confessing. It is precisely this confessional dynamic that dictates the content of virtually all reality programming, the player exposed in the criminal’s chair, the viewer safely concealed behind the glass of his or her TV screen.

In this context, O. J. Simpson’s televised low-speed flight from police in 1994, and the months of trial coverage that followed, may mark the real beginning of reality TV. The Simpson trial put the Juice back in the public eye; it also gave us Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, Kato Kaelin, and of course Judge Lance Ito, many of whom wrote books about their experience, and became well-paid fixtures on the talk-show circuit (a cross-platform branding that seems eerily resonant with American Idols marketing strategy, among others). Although opinion was divided, it seems fair to say none of these figures was regarded particularly well, whether it was Fuhrman’s alleged racism, Clark’s incompetence, Cochran’s manipulation of the judicial system, or Kaelin’s opportunism (or simply the fact that Simpson was widely perceived to have gotten away with murder). This was precisely their appeal: not as moral signposts, but as figures of entertainment detached from genuine moral (let alone legal) culpability. Viewed retrospectively, the dramatic reenactments and archival footage intercut with talking heads indulging in confessional yet self-justifying speeches—not to mention the constant promise by a smarmy host that things would get only more sordid as the story progressed—looks remarkably like contemporary reality TV, in which life is depicted as a kind of courtroom game where the winners aren’t the best people, or even the best players, but the ones willing to lie, cheat, or otherwise debase themselves to earn the rewards of celebrity and cash. As a corollary, it’s worth noting that the families of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were widely perceived to have received “justice” not through the criminal-court system, but through the settlement awarded in civil court, which is dishearteningly in concert with a reality-TV ethic in which profit and loss have replaced right and wrong as the primary motivating paradigm.

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Dale Peck is the author of Hatchet Jobs: Writing on Contemporary Fiction, The Lost Cities, which will be published in January, and The Garden of Lost and Found, due out in June.

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