Even though close friends of the Radical know that every once in a while I lapse into an intense fascination with American Idol, I hate reality TV. Except for the classic foremother of the genre, An American Family (1973), I’ve never seen one series that even approached something “real” that was worth knowing. But until now I have never been able to say why I hate them so much beyond a deep feeling that it is simply improper to make an ever so brief living by allowing a camera crew to violate your privacy for months. I also find reality TV boring: who watches Tori and Dean for example? Women who fantasize about a life folding laundry and talking to unemployed gay men who wander in and out for no reason?
Clearly I have reasons for hating reality TV that I have not been able to articulate, and it isn’t because it’s bad TV. I watch shows like Gossip Girl, Army Wives and the ever-mawkish Brothers and Sisters as though they were a form of demented religion.
There are, of course, the little things I hate about reality TV. For example, I am puzzled by the idea that your average housewife or househusband solving daily problems is of deep cultural significance when we can’t even have a logical conversation about delivering routine health care to the American working family. I hate Survivor because a group of Americans (who are mostly white, but I don’t actually care what color they are) pretending that they have been reduced to “savagery” is a form of neo-imperial racist entertainment that I can’t even wrap my head around. Admittedly, the show has contributed useful phrases to the academic enterprise: has anyone else been on a search committee where, dizzy with the effort of trying to exclude any number of excellent candidates from a finalist list, it has been reluctantly agreed to that So-and-so will be “voted off the island?” But I can’t watch even a commercial for Survivor without wondering why the indigenous people of Samoa don’t pull themselves together to sue CBS.
Then there are the lengths to which people are willing to go in the name of self-transformation and personal fulfillment that seem to be most closely related to the desperation of participants in dance marathons and six-day bicycle races during the 1920s. Last night, here in South Africa, I watched a reality show that combines so many aspects of other successful shows that it makes you dizzy ( my friend asked, “Why do they always have a judge with a British accent?” I answered without thinking, “Because of Simon.” But I’m right, aren’t I?) The show is called Dance Your Ass Off, and features very heavy people who are competing to lose weight and become professional dancers. In between performances we see them rehearsing, blubbering about how bad they feel about themselves, and dieting (looking at the website, my guess is that as the show progresses they feel better about themselves and gush about that.) After the dance performances (which are quite good, and make you wonder exactly why dancers are supposed to be thin) they are scored on the quality of the performance and how many pounds they have lost since last week. One performer had lost nine pounds in a week, and I thought: isn’t that dangerous?
But I now know precisely what I hate about reality shows after reading a full account of Michele and Tareq Salahi gate crashing a White House state dinner. And yes, it is entirely the fault of the Secret Service that their tawdry little scheme worked. But why did the Salahis do it? Because they are competing to be chosen for a reality TV show!!! This follows on, of course, the Colorado couple who caused several hundred thousand dollars worth of emergency services to be scrambled because they claimed, falsely, that their child had launched himself in a home-made flying contraption.
What to do, what to do? One thing that strikes me is that scholars have to go through Institutional Research Boards when working with human or animal subjects. We have to demonstrate the importance of the research and, particularly when humans are involved, show that the research itself is not causing harm or exploiting vulnerable populations (when animals are involved, researchers are still allowed to do things that are more or less ghastly to some of us.) Why is there no version of this for commercial television?
Now you may say that these fools who volunteer for reality TV have free will, and the right to contract to make idiots of themselves. They do. But you look at cases like the Salahis, and the Survivor contestants, or Mr.and Mrs. Heene, the parents who put their son at the center of a media s**t storm and landed him in foster care to boot, and you have to ask the question: who else are they hurting through their narcissistic desire to be famous at any cost? Might the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stop worrying for a moment about who is jammed in whose crotch at the American Music Awards and deal with this? An independent body needs to be commissioned to ask these reality show people to present proposals that demonstrate, unequivocally, that however shameless their participants are, no one will be harmed by the show and no laws will be broken in filmng it.
Some equivalent of a television IRB would ask the producers of the as-yet uncast “Housewives of D.C.” (the show the Salahis are trying to get on) to present a list of stunts that their prospective participants will perform at any phase of production. If “break into a White House State dinner” were on that list, the IRB would say no, you can’t do that, it’s illegal. Then if they did it anyway, the telly IRB would cancel the show.
I understand that there are plenty of problems with IRBs, and frustrations attached to having to work through them. One would have to ta
ke that into account when imagining a commission that theoretically would have the power to censor culture before it was even made. The most frequent complaint I hear is non-experts seeing harm where there is none, and restricting social science research in particular. On the other hand, regulation, however imperfect, feeds a lively conversation about research ethics. Conversely, a complete lack of regulation produced research projects like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which African-American men were told they were being treated but were actually doomed to a long, gruesome death from the disease.
But there are things that are less controversial about IRBs that the FCC might usefully think about in relation to reality shows. They watchdog the exploitation of vulnerable populations, and take into account that people can be fully informed and make decisions that they wouldn’t make if they didn’t have a lot of problems already. They prohibit the commission of crimes. They prohibit the exploitation of people who are captive in some way. And some even look closely at how publishing the research might lead to unintentional misrepresentation of the subjects.
Indeed, the television and film industry already has a code stating clearly that there is “a duty to consider the welfare of animals under their control and that this care should be separate from the interests of film production.” It applies to all “vertebrates” except for “human beings and fish.”
So let’s get on it about the human beings. And the fish, if you like.