Is Real TV the End of Civilization? : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

[I post the following as a sign of the times, an indicator of larger social trends, or something like that. My comments are in brackets. --Andre]

Headline: Rats for Ratings: Is Real TV the End of Civilization?

Source: ABC News, 15 June 2001


In the quest for ratings, how far will game show contestants, and the major U.S. TV networks, go?

This week, NBC introduced Fear Factor, a show whose premiere had contestants in a pit while 400 live rats were poured on them, dragged down a muddy street behind two horses, and stepping over a wet car suspended high above a watery canyon.

Critics immediately took the show to task. "Fear Factor made me physically ill," wrote Washington Post critic Tom Shales. "It's hard to think of anything as irresponsible and reckless as the rat pit on Fear Factor."

The show is the latest, and perhaps most extreme, U.S. TV network show placing "real people" — that is, non-actors — in stressful, perilous, intrusive and potentially embarrassing situations. The shows have come a long way since the 1950s, when reality TV meant contestants competing to go on a blind date with a model (accompanied by the host of the TV show and the winner's mother).

In 2001, reality TV is Fox's Temptation Island, where otherwise monogamous couples are tempted to stray. It's CBS' Big Brother, in which strangers live in a house equipped with scores of cameras monitoring their every move. It's ABC's The Mole, in which people are assigned tasks to earn cash and must find the traitor among them. And it's CBS' Survivor, with the challenge and pressure of, for example, either downing a mouthful of chewy larvae or forgoing a potential $1 million grand prize.

Lamenting a Decline in Quality

Reality TV is popular: Some 11 million people tuned in to Fear Factor, making it the highest rated show of its time slot. But critics say that's no excuse. Fear Factor is a "show that practically begs critics to condemn it for all kinds of cultural ills," wrote Mathew Gilbert of the Boston Globe. It's "demeaning toward human beings," wrote Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel critic Tom Jicha.

Shales wrote that the trend is motivated by a desperation among the networks to meet the devolving tastes of viewers: "The sound you hear in the distance is not rats nibbling ears. It's the sound of networks flailing. Their desperation increases as competition from cable grows and the old formulas and formats seem less and less attractive to American viewers."

The consequences, Shales wrote, are the declining quality of television and a certain shamelessness among the networks and the participants. "[I]s it any longer possible to embarrass NBC — or any of the other broadcast networks for that matter? They may have passed the point of embarrassability."

The End of Civilization?

Writer Kurt Vonnegut, speaking on ABCNEWS' Nightline Wednesday, said he thought the creators of reality TV were "scumbags," but he dismissed the notion that the shows could harm our civilization. "Well, what makes you or anybody else think we have a civilization?" the author of Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions asked Nightline host Ted Koppel. "My Lord, to act as though we have this precious thing which could be damaged? What can happen to it that hasn't already happened to it?"

[Mr. Vonnegut's amusing comment reminds me of an (apocryphal?) story about Gandhi: a western reporter supposedly asked him what he thought of Western Civilization. Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a good idea."]

Also on Nightline Wednesday night, TV talk-show pioneer Dick Cavett said people are drawn to "the cheap curiosity factory."

Cavett, who is currently appearing in Broadway's Rocky Horror Show — in which a lingerie-clad transvestite alien seduces both members of a lost heterosexual couple — pointed out that people used to attend lynchings almost as a form of entertainment. "I'm just afraid they're going to get even more horrible things, and maybe we end up having to see Gilligan's Island again," he said.

New York Times critic Caryn James called Fear Factor "a terrible show," but said it wasn't the end of civilization. "I think the culture has changed and we live in a culture where the camera determines so much of reality," she said.

Just a Passing Fad?

Others, too, argue the shows don't herald the decline of American culture and society. "I think people are fascinated with reality TV shows because it gives them something to compare their lives to, you know: 'Oh, I'm better than that person. I'm smarter than that person. I never would have done that,'" says Dan Minihan, a filmmaker who wrote and directed Series Seven, depicting a reality show in which the contestants must kill each other or be killed.

"It's also a safe place to kind of act out your aggressions," he says. "You pick the person you dislike the most. You wait for them to get voted off the island, booted out of the house or humiliated in some way. And you know it's kind of good, you know, good mean-spirited fun."

The Foreign Connection

Overseas, reality TV is often an even bigger staple, such as the Peruvian TV show I'll Do Anything for Money, on which impoverished Peruvians ate maggots for $20.

The Japanese have been absorbed in reality-based TV for more than a decade [i.e, during their own economic Bubble and its ongoing, decade-long aftermath --Andre]. Consider these two concepts: A man is locked in a house for a year and has to perform stunts for food. Or, baseball fans are locked away for a season and punished when their teams lose by having the electricity cut.

And they seem to have long-abandoned concerns that these shows herald a social crisis. Tetsuo Jimbo, a freelance TV journalist and the head of Japan Video News, says people want to see others suffering. "The suffering element is very important to understand why these shows became very popular in the last 10 years in Japan," he says.

Japanese concerns about reality shows have largely subsided over the years, he says. "I think it's mainly because the Japanese public has pretty much acquired the attitude that those shows are just a sheer form of entertainment, nothing more."

Minihan thinks the phenomenon in America will eventually play itself out. "I think it'll kind of go full circle. In a way, maybe people will get bored with reality or realize what they're seeing is not real, and we'll go back to traditional old sitcoms and TV shows."

[Personally, I think the trend in Reality TV reflects the fundamental alienation of many people in Western Civilization from the realities of the world... both in their jobs and in their artificial urban or suburban home environments: an unnatural separation from any sense of true gritty reality in their lives, which we evolved with and somehow need, but which is now fulfilled vicariously through increasingly lurid and meaningless entertainment. Also reference the growing popularity of "adventure tourism," bungee jumping, etc. -–Andre]

-- Andre Weltman (, June 15, 2001


Andre, I think you're onto something here. We're wired for action, because for most of our species' existence, we've needed, as a matter of life and death, to be ready for action. The play of all mammals in some way involves the skills needed for survival; a creature that did not enjoy utilizing its survival skills surely would not use them as much, or as well, as one that did. Psycho-studies have shown that we enjoy most activities that push us right to the edge of our skill level and then just a hair over. Once we've mastered one level of, say, a computer game, we revel in our mastery for a very brief period indeed before pushing on to the next challenge. But where are the challenges to be found in times of prosperity? Prosperity's lovely--right after a time of dearth, of overwork. Once we're rested, though, what is there to do next?

I strongly suspect that at least one element of inner city gangs is that even the deplorable poverty of such neighborhoods is still high luxury compared to, say, hunting and gathering an the edge of an ice-age glacier; if these young people have never converted a lust for physical challenge into purely intellectual challenge, where can they go, what can they do? Defending one's turf against other tribes may be an artificial, self-created challenge today, but it is certainly archetypically human.

The less violent go the vicarious route, as you noted, and settle for watching others. Either way, there is a disconnect, an alienation, between what we're built for and what there is available for us to do.

-- L. Hunter Cassells (, June 15, 2001.


The follow-up issue is: How does all this play out when (a) the economy tanks bigtime, and (b) increasing numbers of people can't afford their current Reality entertainment, including even cable/satellite TV with all those expensive premium packages? Will we see a return to older entertainments, or what? Will the transition be painful?

Stay tuned, odd things are going to happen. Wish my crystal ball would tell me exactly what, though.

-- Andre Weltman (, June 15, 2001.

Television is becoming increasinly addictive. My family stopped watching 8 years ago. With our free time we talk, read, study and do more active pursuits. My 3 kids are all in the top 5% of their class and the oldest was valedictoran. My kids are not exceptional but have cultivated other skills with their free time. We only missed TV for a short time and it now is very painful to watch at others homes as we see them slide into a hypnotic state. Free yourself. ss

-- Scott Stokes (, June 15, 2001.

History may be repeating itself. Shortly before the Roman Empire's collapse, the masses enjoyed watching gladiators fight to the death with one another and/or with hungry carnivorous animals. History books typically cite this as part of the "decadence" that preceded (and caused) the Roman Empire's demise.

Hence, the idea that this modern decadence might herald the end of today's civilization is not at all trivial --- or even new.

-- Robert Riggs (, June 16, 2001.

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