In many ancient societies gladiators provided a common form of entertainment. The ancient battlers either fought each other, or engaged in combat with wild animals. In either case they were fighting and in most cases suffering for the entertainment of an audience that had little if any regard for the players. The audience was content to enjoy the pain and agony that took place in the arena before them. These ancient fighters often fought to their death. Fortunately, we have grown beyond such cruel and inhuman forms of entertainment, but maybe not entirely.
Regardless of how much TV you watch, you probably cannot name all of genres of the shows currently available. There are several old standards that are well recognized, and for the most part they have and will continue to fulfill a number of reasonable purpose. To varying degrees these old standbys inform, educate, enlighten, inspire, or provide a source of entertainment. Their individual purposes are rather clear and over a number of years they have developed followings based on what they offer. However, many of the new reality TV shows seem to be little more than a throwback to the days of the gladiators in the great coliseums and arenas of ancient empires.
By simple definition, reality TV is programming where individuals are supposedly filmed in real-life situations for the purpose of entertaining an audience, with no goal of informing, enlightening, or inspiring the audience. These programs cover a wide variety of subjects that include;
- housewives who can and often do degrade what should be calm social discourse into raging battles of interpersonal affronts, abusive language, abrasive insults, and painful reminders of past grievances, either real or imagined,
- talented chefs and clothing designers trying to win a monetary prize and an opportunity to advance in their careers, who are often subjected to ridicule, degrading comments, and fits of rage from judges that border on the ridiculous,
- people of enormous physical proportions struggling to try and regain some level of control over their eating and thus their lives who either offer or are subjected to fits of rage, angry outbursts, and demeaning comments,
- and finally couples confronted by the fact that one or the other has been or is currently unfaithful, who are publically pitted against each other resulting in open and hostile confrontations.
Such programming must be popular, for if it were not, it would have disappeared long ago. What then, one could ask, makes such programs so popular? Could it be the fighting, the interpersonal conflict, and or the pain of people struggling to survive? If it is, even in part, have we advanced beyond the allure of the entertaining quality of watching others struggle against their lot in life, while engaging in all manner of interpersonal conflict?
And then there is the question of reality. One need not watch them long or diligently to begin questioning just whose reality such life scenarios and circumstances these really might be.
Even a casual follower of such programming could be left questioning if such reality is in fact being staged to enhance the level of interpersonal and personal conflict that will be offered in each episode. Is there a conscious effort to play to the audience’s desire to watch others struggle and engage in fight after fight? If that’s the case, even in part, what does that say about the audience?
If this is really someone’s reality, it would not be hard to conclude that they have a rather rough lot in life. If such programming does not portray a true reflection of some manner of reality, one could realistically ask why it’s called reality TV to begin with. And finally whether staged or not, such programming clearly plays, at least in part, to a certain unsettling desire of the audience.
Whether real or staged, the purpose of such programming raises a number of questions.
Have the viewers been informed or educated? Have the guests learned how to better make the most of the opportunities in their lives and meet the challenges that come to them? Is anybody really any better off for the experience? Or, have viewers simply been entertained by human suffering, interpersonal conflict, and social turmoil?
And then there is a final question. If viewed frequently enough, and perceived long enough as reality, could such programs change viewers’ perceptions of what reality really is? For the young who are still trying to make some sense of the adult world they are growing into, what impact do such programs have on their perceptions of what is right and wrong, and how life is really lived?
If watching others fight, struggle, and suffer is entertaining, have we really grown past the ancient manner of gladiator-style entertainment?
Dr. Mike McGough is a York College professor who lives in Abbottstown.