Reflections on Reality TV

by Conor Friedersdorf

Jonah Goldberg's latest column at National Review is worth a read.

Opining on "reality tv," he writes:

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great television. But gladiatorial games would be great TV, too.

The Los Angeles Times reported the other day that the reality-show industry is suddenly having a crisis of conscience about its impact on the culture. That’s nice to hear, but it’s not nearly enough.

British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.

This reminded me that I've long had a thought about The Real Housewives series, the rare reality show I've watched consistently since having grown up in Orange County, California, I am always fascinated and horrified by its portrayal on television. The evil genius of that show's producers is their insight that some television shows attract an aspirational audience -- see every high school soap opera about rich kids living somewhere -- and other successful television shows attract an audience that revels in contempt for its characters.

"What if these audiences could be combined?" I imagine those producers asking themselves. Thus the portrayal of very rich, utterly contemptible families and single women: some audience members aspire to their opulent lifestyle, others are entertained by their nouveau rich vulgarity, still others enjoy feeling morally superior to the rich. It's something for everyone!

On a tangentially related subject, one characteristic shared among the shows that concluded the sitcom era and today's reality television shows is that they ignore, to an astonishing degree, all but the upper middle classes in American life. A group of friends in their early twenties living in New York City? Of course they have huge apartments! Of course when they worry about money the question is whether they can afford Hootie and the Blowfish tickets! But at least those stylized sitcoms didn't make a claim on representing reality. On "Reality TV," money is  thrown around by the rich and lavished by feel good re-decorators on the poor, but it is rarely portrayed in a fashion that resembles the way average Americans experience it. Perhaps ruining the escapist nature of these shows is lethal to ratings.

Further thoughts on reality television are here.