Is Reality TV Torture?

Honest to goodness, I thought it was just me.

reality tv survivor2.JPG
When Survivor first aired, I watched the initial episode with the naive idea that it was actually a show about survival. As in, dump a group of people on an island, and the one or ones who is the best at building shelter, figuring out sources of food, and keeping their innovative and rational wits about them, win. With rescue teams to keep the others from actually dying. Imagine my disappointment to discover that it was, instead, a show offering a re-run of junior high cliques and pout-fests. "Oh, dear god," I thought. "Junior high was bad enough the first time. Spare me the torture of watching it all over again." But I reassured myself with the thought that surely, this kind of show wouldn't last.

Last, of course, doesn't begin to describe what's happened in the reality TV world. Rabbits should reproduce and spread so prolifically. And even a number of my very intelligent friends have become avid fans of one show or another.

My own view, however, has remained unchanged. If a sinister power wanted to get state secrets out of my hands, a few days of non-stop reality TV show watching would do the trick. Enough back-to-back Bridezillas, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, and Bachelor-babe catfights, with no hope of turning the channel, and I'd be pleading for mercy. But I'd also assume that I was the only torture victim in that equation.

A New York Times article earlier this week, however, suggests otherwise.

Drawing on interviews with reality TV show contestants whose non-disclosure contracts have now expired, the article, headlined "Tired, Tipsy, and Pushed to the Brink," details a broad range of techniques routinely used on contestants, including sleep deprivation, isolation, taunting, food deprivation, and pushing of alcohol consumption. Take out the alcohol, and the list reads like a page straight out of a manual for enhanced interrogation techniques. Which both explains a lot, in terms of the bad behavior on those shows, and also provides a vivid illustration of why those techniques don't always get reliable intelligence from suspects.

germaine greer 2.JPG
Granted, reality show contestants have the option of leaving at any time--a significant difference. And one could argue that if contestants are stupid enough to sign on for the 15 minutes of humiliation fame reality shows offer, they deserve what they get. But even if contestants have visions of easy money or fame, I'm not sure they really know what they're getting into. Many may assume they can beat the system, knowing that they don't normally behave like the people they see on the shows. But even the stalwart feminist warrior Germaine Greer, who signed on to Britain's "Celebrity Big Brother" show in 2005 in the hopes of raising money for her rainforest charities, was overwhelmed by the abuse and dysfunction and quit after only four days. (Her account of her brief stay makes for interesting reading.)

There are undoubtedly any number of individual vulnerabilities and character flaws that plays into the equation, as well. But isolation, group pressure and sleep deprivation are powerful behavior-altering techniques, regardless of who's involved. That's why interrogators use them. When I was 16, I spent a week at a "Girl's State" convention that was ostensibly aimed at teaching us how to be better citizens. By the standards of reality TV, the experience was mild. But we were kept up late, roused early, and subjected to non-stop mandatory lectures each day. Group pressure to approve and conform was great. And within only a few days, almost all individual thought had evaporated. Each speaker got a standing ovation. Any differing opinion was booed, and the questioner ostracized. It was a frightening glimpse into how easy brain-washing and behavior modification are to accomplish--especially in a group.

Add alcohol, taunting, and the other tactics that seem commonplace in reality TV show environments, and you have a disturbing cross between George Orwell's 1984 and a modern-day Roman Coliseum. And yet, like the Romans of old, we cheer. We laugh. We watch. Seemingly without any twinge of conscience. And the puzzling question is ... why?

Is the entertainment quality of the shows that much better than the scripted programs we used to watch? I can't imagine I'd find many who'd say that. Are we so twisted that we love seeing other humans suffer? Or does watching the immature manipulative behavior, suffering and humiliation of seemingly-willing participants on those shows make us feel better about our own lives, no matter what we're going through?

Perhaps, like the contestants themselves, we don't realize what we're endorsing when we watch the shows, or buy the products they advertise. But that's beginning to change. As more information about the treatment of contestants comes out, will we continue to watch? Even knowing that that the last thing the behavior on reality TV shows represents is reality .... unless it's the reality of what vulnerable people will do under harsh and artificially-induced conditions?

The producers of these shows may be behaving as badly, or worse, than their inebriated, sleep-deprived contestants. But they could rightly argue that just as the slave trade depended on having people willing to buy the slaves, the reality TV shows depend on having audiences willing to watch. We are complicit. And as long as we are willing consumers of the product, the torture will continue--both for viewers who have increasingly fewer options in terms of what to watch, and for those hapless souls who sign up for a dream, and end up in a nightmare.