I was thinking about reality TV today. Now I don’t watch the stuff, mind you. In fact I don’t even own a TV. But these things strike one’s radar, albeit sometimes painfully.
I’m not sure if it’s still the craze that is sweeping the nation, or if we’ve gone on to better things like “reality war”. But I wonder if, in the collective amnesia of our media-saturated culture, people ever realize that there has been a long tradition of “reality” TV programming.
This will be a short history, just enough to get you to scratch you head and say “oh yeah!”. Here goes: I would say the very first reality show that I recall would have to have been “Candid Camera”, which first aired in 1948. This was a contest where people were put into slapstick situations (not knowing they were on TV) only to discover that SURPRISE, they were indeed on TV, the subject of a prank for the amusement of the audience. It was sort of like a home makeover show, in the sense that it stepped into people’s everyday lives, but it did so for the sake of laughs, not increasing one’s equity.
Remember the early 1980’s shows – “Real People” and “That’s Incredible”? Both shows first aired in 1979. Both were “reality” programs in the sense that the took the cameras into people’s homes or work places. Real People hunted out just that – real people and their human interest stories. That’s Incredible was along the same lines, but concentrated more in the supernatural and strange people. I recall liking “Real People” better as it treated people with more dignity.
Then there was “Totally Hidden Video”, a Fox program which first aired in 1989. A NYTimes review
described the program as being “as funny as halitosis”. It was basically the same premise as “Candid Camera”, setting real people up as the object of a prank. So similar, in fact, that Fox was sued by Allan Funt, the creator of Candid Camera. I’m not sure if Fox lost, but I hope they did. I remember hating THV, which was very mean-spirited, making fun of subjects when they attempted to protest being on camera.
From these humble beginnings, we have today evolved to masterpeices such as “Survivor”, “Big Brother” and the special breed of “reality home improvement shows” such as “Extreme Home Makeover” or those aired on HGTV (House and Garden TV). What is the difference between today’s reality and that of yesteryear?
I propose a few differences:
The old reality shows like “Candid Camera” or even “That’s Incredible” featured “spots” of reality, interspersed with the commentary of a traditional cast of TV hosts. Reality shows like “Big Brother” simply show a constant stream of “reality” with no commentary. In that sense, these newer shows are more like sit-coms without trained actors.
The early shows focused more on pranks and comedy. Back then reality, in its untrained and unpractised sponteneity, was inherently funny. Real People were like stooges. Today’s shows see real people as being the stuff of serious drama. We do not laugh as we see the contestants of Survivor eliminate one another. The goal of the game is serious and we are willing to overlook the meaningless dialogue of the “actors”. Similarly, as I stated before, today’s “home makeover” type shows are very serious and practical. Perhaps it is because in this era of $700,000 mortgages, if we take some precious time away from our DIY jobs to watch a little TV, we don’t want simply to be amused, we want to learn techniques which will help us increase our home equity.