What Is Reality? Not What TV Networks Think It Is - PopMatters Television Feature

="Description" CONTENT="What Is Reality? Not What TV Networks Think It Is, by Norma Coates


What a shock! Some portions of Survivor: The Australian Outback were reenacted to heighten their drama. Say it ain’t so, Joe! Next thing I know, they’ll be telling us that there is no such thing as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or compassionate conservatism.


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(21 May 2006)

The outcry over Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s recent confession that his reality program’s reality was tweaked a bit, especially coming from that great exemplar of responsible reality television programming, the Fox network, is funnier and even more pathetic than Survivor Jerri’s amorous pursuit of Colby as he illegally plucked coral from the Great Barrier Reef. Burnett claims to have reenacted a swim race using body doubles in order to provide aerial shots for the viewing audience. He resorted to fakery to get the pesky cameras that constantly trail Survivor contestants out of the shot. That is, he had to make the contest look real. All this comes as Burnett deals with another headache: Survivor I contestant Stacey Stillman’s lawsuit charging that the program’s outcome was rigged for entertainment value. Huh?

I could resort to slinging postmodern theory here, especially Jean Baudrillaud’s notion of the hyperreal, that some things, especially capitalist popular culture things, are more real than real (Pomo 101example: Disneyland), but I’ll spare you. Newsflash to Stillman, any other litigious ex-Survivors, and jealous network heads: Survivor ain’t real. Cameras are trained on your every move (well, except, we hope, for bathroom habits, but given all the talk about it in Survivor II, we may be, ahem, exposed to them in Survivor III). You provide monologues to the camera. The thing is edited, for pete’s sake. Of course the show is rigged. Get over it! The audience has. Why else would we watch it?

I’ll admit, I watched every single episode of Survivor II, even the execrable Survivor: Back from the Outback, a sign of either how tired I am by the time Thursday night rolls around, or how low I’ve sunk. I rationalize my compulsive viewing because, in my real life, I’m a media scholar. Under the guise of that identity, I was interested in how Survivor II would be different from Survivor I. Indeed, from the start, Survivor II began to build characters and devise intrigues, even though they weren’t really there. Survivor I, in my opinion, was boring as hell until the tribes merged. I didn’t even bother to watch the initial episodes after yawning through the first one. Survivor II‘s cast was less compelling. Even Jerri’s bitch act got tiring after a while, and once she got the boot, the other actors . . . er . . . contestants went into snooze mode. But the construction of the show—the immediate transformation of “regular” people into actors on Survivor II—was fascinating. Perhaps only actress Jerri overtly played to the camera, but Survivor‘s astute and talented editors slotted everyone into familiar cheesy network drama roles right away (The Outback 90210, perhaps?). Ultimately, Survivor II was only marginally less formulaic than the average network offering, but the chance of natural disaster and the compulsion to see who would win the money and be on the pop culture radar for another six months or so kept us tuning in. And the scenery and the people were pretty, too.

What Fox executives, Stacey Stillman, and anyone else who fulminates over Survivor‘s tentative grasp on reality don’t get is that the audience doesn’t care about how “real” it is. After almost 80 years of commercial network broadcasting (starting with radio in the mid-1920s), we have low expectations. We know it’s not real. It’s network tv-real, which is not the same thing as real-real. (Again, I will resist going pomo on you and assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some tangible reality through which we all muddle.) Despite the assertions of network programmers that their programs reflect reality back to us, they don’t. Reality is not relentlessly upper-middle-class, good-looking, and buff. Is it any surprise that Debb was the first survivor voted out this time? I cannot attest to her actual social status, but her profession—prison guard—codes as the most resolutely lower-middle-class occupation of the bunch. Okay, Jerri and Kimmee were bartenders, but only as a way station to something more glamorous.

No, like everything else on network television, Survivor contestants mirror the audience that television sponsors want to appeal to, the middle- to upper-middle-class with the money to buy ugly car/SUV things and the inclination to munch mountains of Doritos. As to why we watch it, it appeals to our sense of fantasy-reality, the urge to break away from the suburbs, middle-management, and child care to prove ourselves in some crazy test of endurance. It’s probably the same urge that makes some people run marathons, snowboard, or go to grad school. Who wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert island for a few weeks? Granted, having a few books and some food around would be nice, but we’d like to think we could handle it. And, it’s more interesting than almost all of the offerings served up by the Big Four network these days.

For network executives, reality programs are the equivalent of the Tagi alliance on the first Survivor; they insulate networks from getting kicked off the Hollywood island. Development of conventional non-reality programming, as opposed to reality non-reality programming, costs a small fortune, what with all of those pesky actors, writers, and production staff to pay. Maintaining a hit program on one network is an increasingly expensive proposition, too. Reality programming doesn’t have an afterlife in syndication, but it sure keeps sponsors happy, especially if they can interweave their products into the plot… er… action of the shows. That is, they make money. And the small amount of randomness designed into them keeps them interesting, however marginally. I can’t imagine that survivor Michael agreed to fall into the fire for cash, although I can imagine that Survivor II‘s ending could have been carefully rigged after last year’s Presidential Selection. Perhaps Mark Burnett believed that the audience didn’t want to see another good ol’ Texas boy bully his way into victory, so concocted the storybook ending in which gallant Colby handed his sure victory to amiable Tina. Probably not, but not inconceivable. Whatever the case, who would have cared? It’s entertainment, no more, no less.

The most compelling thing about Survivor and the other “reality” programs is the ostensible reality behind it. If this reality were a television program, it would be called LA Deathmatch. See how the Big Four and Niche-y Two “broadcast” networks fight for survival! Watch as upstart subscription cable networks leech their desired audience from them! Thrill as network executives and the sponsors who pay their salaries scramble to come up with absurd “reality” programs built around their products! Who will be the last network standing?!

From what I can tell, the networks are running scared, especially in the face of such non-network successes as HBO’s The Sopranos. In fact, The Sopranos is so threatening to networks and their sponsors that Robert Wright, president of NBC, recently wrote a letter distributed to key television producers, agents, and executives asking for their thoughts about the impact of the program on “mainstream” [network] entertainment.” He accompanied his letter with a tape of arguably the most violent and traumatic Sopranos episode yet, in which a psychotic mobster beat a stripper to death. Apparently, the broadcast networks feel threatened by a program that runs on a subscription cable service for 13 episodes a year, on Sunday night no less, not a big programming night. Out of desperation, Wright feels the need to establish a high moral ground and to place the traditional networks on it. Not that there’s any violence, gratuitous or otherwise, on network television, mind you…

Wright and his cronies are resorting to rhetoric to combat the Sopranos juggernaut, rather than facing up to the difficult challenge of reenvisioning a commercial broadcasting system whose economic and programming model has changed very little in 8 decades. Ironically, the last best hope for the networks and sponsors are the reality programs, a variant of the game show genre. I employ the overused term “ironic” because the Quiz Show Scandal of the late 1950s enabled networks to seize control of programming from the sponsors and thus to consolidate their economic and cultural power. Now, the formerly powerful networks are depending on reality game shows, rife with product placements, as well as high dudgeon, to save them.

Your rhetoric, at least, isn’t going to work, Bob, and reality programs will soon play themselves out as they become more ridiculous in order to shill sponsored products. I’m sorry that HBO is tearing that crucial Sunday night audience away from the repeats of Saturday Night Live or made-for-TV submarine stories that you offer in that time slot. What is drawing audiences to The Sopranos, for example, is that these programs don’t try to stake out or, more accurately, pay lip service to a moral high ground. The Sopranos places viewers in the middle of the moral muck, forcing them to confront the realities of their own moral compasses. It’s virtually impossible to enjoy The Sopranos without an engaged brain. Although most of us will never be members of the Mafia, the program has a feeling of authenticity that network television, in its present incarnation, can never hope to match. This authenticity goes beyond the surface (real four-letter-words, explicit sex, and graphic violence) to the affective level. We can believe the feeling, situations, and dilemmas portrayed on the program because they parallel, not mirror, experiences of our own daily lives. When’s the last time we felt that way about Friends, ER, or NYPD Blue, examples of some of the best that network television has to offer? Given the network alternatives, The Sopranos may be the “realest” reality program out there.

If anything, the network’s adherence to an outdated economic and programming model may be the most cynical move of all. The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and other subscription cable programming prove is that good television is available to those who can afford it. That, to me, is the most troubling aspect of The Sopranos, in that it replicates the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in this country. (I could go on, but that’s for another article.) As for Survivor, Mark Burnett should fake it as much as he wants. His audience does not expect anything more. As long as we have nice human and topographical scenery, and a tiny bit of the outcome left to chance, it’s still more interesting than 98% of anything else on network television. And Stacey Stillman, your fifteen minutes of fame are over. I suggest you stick to your day job.

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