During the last decade we have witnessed the birth of a new genre of television. One which has marked the mindset and trends of our society to the point which it is hard to tell if this genre is cause or effect of the now globalized culture which extends its domination over many of the criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life which are found in a vast plurality of forms, readily accessible for our immediate consumption; for our immediate information; for our immediate approval.

This situation has evolved from the sci-fi pop-culture that dominated in the 80s and 90s. Though not having fully disappeared, it is clear that, the fantasy of a distant future reality has been replaced by an almost obsessive urge to experience the immediate – to experience the sensational impact of the immanent. An urge that seeks to unveil every last part of reality until there is nothing left to see or feel. We are speaking of an empire of the immanent; where every deed and fact is exposed in a flux of constant changes that demand our unyielding attention. Behind it all lays a so-called post-modern tendency that moves towards a progressive deconstruction of reality, reducing everything to a mix of subjective and transitory impressions. In this worldview the mind should be weak, pensiero debole, but the sensations strong, shock-factor.


[pullquote]The phenomenon and the phenomenal-ity of Reality TV has become just as liquid as the funds that drive the cutthroat competition on the ratings board. Anyone with a critical eye (which we should all try to have in good measure) can begin to perceive that the effort to have a formed conscience with regard to viewer content gradually becomes threatened by an intensifying trivialization of what is real. If some have complained that yesteryear’s “futuristic” dreams have in some way “alienated” the vision of human dignity, we can affirm that with Reality TV it has been carried away by the flood of those who seek to be the latest and the last before the eyes of the world.[/pullquote]

Some History and Stats

Reality TV had its first beginnings in the 50s with the live talent show Hollywood Opportunity. In the 70’s came the show American Family whose 12 episodes document the tragic, gradual breakup of the Loud family.  The renowned show COPS and America’s Funniest Home Videos followed up at the end of the 80s with slightly different formats that turned out to be long running hits. A European show called Number 28 trail blazed the confessionary style interviews and toward the end of the 90s other programs like Expedition Robinson and Changing Rooms complete setting the stage for what would follow.

The television industry faced hard times in the 90s. The economic crisis spawned many options for alternative and cost-effective programming. It is no surprise that the above-mentioned shows offered a tantalizing option; liquidity with regard to scripts, actors and action. But there was more. Programmers discovered the possibility of product placement advertising during the show, which offered up to double the airtime of traditional ad spots. The potential exploitation of this innate moneymaker not only offered a sure solution to the TV industry’s economic crisis, it made the other types of programming seem obsolete…at least for a decade or so.

The geniality of it all would have ended shortly as just another mid season anomaly were it not for the unprecedented appeal these shows had among the largest group of economic consumers (18-45 years of age). Reality TV became a hot commodity, a novelty of the masses driven by a consumerist mentality and an appeal for dramatic situational humor. This fact paved the way for it to take over prime time television.

The demands were so great and the stakes so high that the ‘no stops’ attitude which often appeared on screen was also followed in the studio. According to a study done by the Writer’s Guild of America the reality writers particularly suffered: overtime generally unpaid on a 60+ hour work week, sloppy bookkeeping, lack of insurance, and insufficient meal breaks. Participants also suffer absurdly due to the abrasive pressures that are deliberately generated to create the prized unscripted drama (actually quite manipulated behind the scenes). Shame TV is a term that has been used to describe some of the more morbid shows, and new, clinical post-fame problems have arisen in many post-show contestants. All of this demonstrates an underlying disregard for the persons involved; an elevation of the sensational spectacle over human dignity.

The viewers, on the other hand, seem to enjoy every benefit of this exploitation. The reality TV spectacle has been brought ever closer to the immediate experience of the viewer and begins to manifest its influence before, during, and after the broadcast as a personalized interest. In 2010, studies found that worldwide, people were spending nearly 4 hours a day in front of the TV, taking into account that Reality TV has occupied an average of nearly 60% of primetime programming!

[pullquote]Although in the last two years (2011-2013) its primetime domination has declined significantly, the strongest contenders in Reality TV have consistently been the shows that offer the greatest accessibility for viewers to become direct participants. Participation TV, where viewers help determine the outcome of the episodes via text message voting and prize drawings, helped accommodate the urge for direct involvement, but the fascination of this consumer commodity demands an ever more hands on experience. The thirst for immediate fame, although not new to the recipe of the American dream, has somehow established itself as a national consumerist commodity-event being broadcast daily; though one doesn’t buy in with money, but with the selling of “oneself”, dressed in the good, the bad, and the ugly.[/pullquote]

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While some have sought out fleeting onscreen stardom, the grand majority chooses a less revealing direct participation in local commercial markets. Reality entertainment has translated into new profit ventures in the sectors of gastronomy, antiques, interior decoration, autos, travel and fashion, not to mention the multimillion-dollar impacts on big brand name commerce. Viewers are not satisfied with only enjoying what they watch, but they want go and try it out for themselves. Who is being exploited in the end? Perhaps such immediate access to the benefits of reality entertainment is only another form of exploitation, now extended to the consumer.

Processing a paradox

An interesting paradox presents itself here for our reflection. We see on one hand, the de-personalized, profit-driven interior dynamic behind Reality TV, and on the other, the vast exposure that it has gained within our society as a “personalized” form of entertainment. Have we been fooled? The recent decline of this new genre in the last years may suggest not, but I would argue that this decade has witnessed the forming of a mindset, and that mindset continues to exercise its influence.

[pullquote]The Peruvian thinker L.F. Figari may have well put his finger on it when he says, “The patterns of daily culture are being carried to meaninglessness, to a lack of significance, to the escape from what is real, to submerge themselves in an fleeting stream of continued and accelerated changes.”(citation) Under the influence of this dynamic –we might call it subjectivist immanentism– the concept of reality itself is altered so that what is real becomes what is present at this instant to my sensation. Thus, the process of categorizing reality becomes the individual perception of the strongest stimulus. In other words, that which grabs most at my attention is that which is most real and most important. This would mean that the summit of the existent, that which is above all else, is no longer a transcendent or invisible reality, but rather to paraphrase the idea: “the shock-factor”.[/pullquote]

 This impulsive categorization of reality, which is enabled by our technological consumerist society, creates the perception that everything is within immediate reach, both goods and experiences. As this way of categorizing things becomes habitual a growing absence of reflection develops, because the experience of sensation does not require it. The fundamental questions upon which reality is based are put in jeopardy. Shall they be silenced?

12Why does Figari say there is a lack of significance in this stream of constant changes? Perhaps it is due to a lack of reflection to give it a significance; no effective evaluation of the meaning of what is going on. We naively tend, however, to attribute a certain significance to these “spectacular” events simply as pre-established cultural norms. But the society of spectacle results to be a rather watery foundation for any deeper meaning. These norms gravitate towards the new, the sensational, the impact of the unexpected, the wow-factor, the scandalous, and/or the absurd, having a particular resonance with that which creates an emotional and/or moral shock. It is no surprise that they end up adhering to a moral relativism and hedonistic ideals. We find that these are in fact paraded across the screen as if they were in some way worthy of being celebrated as wholesome entertainment. Meaning cannot be found where a passive search for pleasure has replaced the active search for truth. Where true authentic reflection is omitted, meaninglessness has come to reign and to guide our interests towards the next big (meaningless) sensation.

Panem et circenses, said the Latin poet Giovenale, was the way the Roman Empire subdued the anxieties of the masses. With bread and circuses do we also now consent to being told this entertainment is our state of wellbeing? Satisfied if entertained, as un-reflexive fans held by impulse to watch someone else get torn to bits in the arena? While not everyone would agree that Reality TV is a 21st century version of the old Roman politic, the criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life formed here and now present an image of a “human reality” that for more than a decade has been globally projected to subdue the anxieties of the masses for several hours a day while they sit in front of the television!


Sadly, this phenomenal “human image” is neither very real nor very human, but a distortion of both, a base trivialization of both. In the real lives of real persons it represents the evening escape from one’s own situation to become involved, in a dissociated way, with someone else’s “more exciting” situation. Lives, stories, problems, achievements and vulnerabilities become a consumer commodity, converting reality and humanity into objects of entertainment, catalysts of impulse, and in the end pawns of an “immediate” global economy. We are witnessing socialization without real personalization. Reality TV brings us another manifestation of the underlying attitudes and habits also found in Musical Dependence: an environment in which to flee from reality and feel, by way of emotional stimulation, inserted into a pseudo-transcendence, where limits can be crossed, at least on an subjective immanent level, through the sensation of being immediately involved in the action, in the unscripted drama, in the exposure of secrets and harsh words, in order to fill the void of an existence that is too timid to face the genuine drama that is our life’s true encumbrance. We are called to assume our struggles in the horizon of a transcendent meaning, not to wash them out with a stream of immanent sensation.

© 2015 – Benjamin Oldani para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC

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