Ever since Richard Hatch, ruthless competitor and future tax evader, won the first season of Survivor, America has been plagued with a rampant virus: reality programming. Soon after the airing of Survivor, Americans’ thirst for peering into the lives of so-called ordinary people grew, and the demand created a slew of reality TV shows. American Idol, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, The Real World, The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model: All purported to be unscripted series in which ordinary people competed, or just lived together, under the watchful eye of the camera.
Celebrities soon got in on the act, and we could voyeuristically enjoy the lives of the Kardashians, Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Osbournes, and even a drunken David Hasselhoff. The question is, why would we want to?
I have had a problem with these shows from the get-go. First of all, they don’t depict the reality people think they are seeing. The real lives of most people, even celebrities, are deadly dull, at least for the purposes of airing them on TV. So manufactured peril and conflict, sob stories about American Idol contestants, and cat fights among the Dance Moms were manufactured for these series. Back in 2000, I asked fans of Survivor, “Do you really think for a second that the television network would allow these contestants to be in real danger?” Yet today we have Naked and Afraid, an update on the “throw people into the perilous wilderness” model.
This blurring of fantasy and reality has made media darlings out of nobodies. Ever heard of Bethany Mota? She started broadcasting videos of herself chatting about looks and fashion online, and the next thing you know, she has her own fashion line being sold at local retailers. I’ll admit that some real talents have been discovered through this method, Justin Bieber being the most obvious example. And I guess we have Idol to thank for discovering such talents as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
The danger with reality TV is that it gives ordinary people the illusion that anyone can be rich and famous. Talent and brains are optional. We aspire to stardom over substance. You can even see this celebrity worship in our current presidential primary season. Donald Trump’s fame, as well as his ever more outrageous antics, have given him a lead in Republican polls even in such a conservative state as Iowa.
Andy Warhol made famous the statement, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” I sincerely hope reality television has had its own 15 minutes of fame.