Reality television shows are quirky forms of entertainment when you think about it. They sometimes remind me of poorly designed Web sites with bad user experiences tailored to the lowest common denominator. Invariably they are full of stereotypes, visual clichés, and copy/paste smoke and mirror effects -used as a sort of crutch in place of good content and thoughtful design. Like the Jonas brothers, I wish many of these nutty shows would just fade away into obscurity.
Shows like Intervention and The Biggest Loser exist as rather unfortunate exploitations of the human condition -I find these programs difficult if not impossible to watch. While talent competitions like American Idol seem to make a farcical mockery of genuine music in favor of mass manufactured, formulaically-driven artistic development.
If John Lennon were alive today and just starting out on his musical career amidst the American Idol contestants, I wonder if he would be voted off by Simon Cowell or the viewing audience in favor someone like Clay Aiken or Adam Lambert? How would Thom Yorke of Radiohead do as a solo artist competing against the likes of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood?
Last weekend I was reminded of these strange thoughts while drinking my coffee Saturday morning and commenting on an article that caught my eye, proclaiming the numerous marketing opportunities surrounding the lucrative reality television industry.
Reality television has become weird and surreal with a contrived feel I find quite palpable.
In the case of The Biggest Loser, the premise, for those who do not follow, centers on overweight contestants attempting to lose weight to fight for a cash prize; contestants always have the same goal: to lose the highest percentage of weight (or most weight) to become the Biggest Loser (Wikipedia).
This is can and should be a very inspirational transformation to witness. Contestants are establishing fundamentally positive changes in lifestyle through sensible diet and exercise regimes resulting in physiological changes which can beneficially last a lifetime. Yet the circumstances under which these changes are forcibly invoked on the show are in fact quite demeaning and unnecessarily intense at times.
Furthermore the very concept of The Biggest Loser is somewhat perverse –if you lose the most weight we’ll pay you money. I find this absolutely fascinating because I wonder how money ultimately factors into the contestants’ objective to win. Does the cash prize serve as the primary motivational factor fuelling the rapid weight loss? Or does the requisite yelling and screaming by the horde of narcissistic personal trainers within the context of what seems to be Body Mass Index boot-camp sound fun and exciting?
The Biggest Loser prize should not be about money but just lose weight and you’ll be healthier, live longer and have a better overall quality of life -this is the true payoff. Would people watch? -probably not.
On the other hand watching a reality show like Celebrity Rehab feels as though you’re stopping to ogle a freakish train-wreck or car accident on the freeway. Sometimes it’s absolutely disgusting and painful to witness. Yet we all do it and show producers know very well of this intrinsic human behaviour to dissect and ridicule the lives of others, so it gets broadcast.
Naturally all of this sexed-up, overly-sensationalized content feels a bit fabricated at times, orchestrated by unscrupulous producers interested only in provoking strong reactions to captivate the viewing audience, all under the guise of reality and so-called authenticity.
Watching adults struggling to overcome obesity and personal addictions can be an arduous experience and probably should not be televised for the voyeuristic viewing pleasure of an audience, but rather be presented in a more compassionate manner -if at all. Yet this likely will not happen because there’s really no compelling drama in compassionate, filtered situations -that would be too real.
Audiences want to see all the harsh and gritty detail -the pain and suffering -the blood and guts -the pathetic fall from grace. And it is for this reason, with each passing television season, reality programming steps further and further up the chain of graphic intensity and social crassness.
I predict by 2017 (roughly 7-8 years from now) we will start to see shows like The Running Man appear where contestants are literally killed off in the name of entertainment. Think American Gladiators meets UFC meets government approved capital punishment. Perhaps this will not be consumed through mainstream network channels (if television is still around in 2017), but through pirate Web casts and peer-to-peer networks originating from countries with lackadaisical Internet laws. It sounds absolutely preposterous now, but in several years time we could certainly progress to this point -a point of complete desensitization towards violence and aggressive behaviour in the name of entertainment.
In the meantime, I think overall, television has reached a point of grasping for the remains of an increasingly fragmented audience with formulaically-driven programs which have invariably been reduced to the lowest common denominator. The wide variety of half-baked reality-based television shows, in my mind, simply represents a deficiency of creative ideas and original thinking.