The original bargain struck between the television industry and its viewing audience was that if we plugged the magical picture box into the wall socket, the programming would be free. In return, a program's sponsors could take four or so minutes per half-hour to promote their products and services with commercial advertisements. That deal lasted nearly 40 years, until the advent of cable TV. So my question is, if we are now paying to watch television, why are there still commercials? We have become so accustomed to the commercial interruption that it has woven itself into the fabric of television's daily reality at the exact same time that programming has become increasingly unreal. In fact, under the guise of "reality television," programming has become one continuous advertisement, seamlessly blending from TV show into paid commercial and back again.
From toddler beauty queens with insane mothers to "celebrities" in rehab, nothing is too extreme for exploitation by reality shows. This works out great for producers, who no longer have to bother with hiring those troublesome actors with their desire to be paid, those left-wing scriptwriters with their "human dramas," and those show-biz union thugs. FCC Chairman Newton B. Minow famously referred to television as a "vast wasteland" in 1961. How quaint that back during the Kennedy administration someone actually thought television's objective should be to entertain and inform.
Today, the industry's raison d'être is as an advertising medium interspersed with the least expensive drivel that the public will tolerate. During an age of flat-screen, plasma, Blu-ray, and other advances, I find it unnecessary to watch Hillbilly Handfishin' in high definition. At a time when television technology is at an all-time high, programming is at an all-time low. Who needs Norman Lear or Garry Marshall when we have Chef Gordon Ramsay and Ryan Seacrest?
Any off-the-wall behavior or activity that you can imagine, there's a reality show about it: extreme hoarders, redneck tycoons, bounty hunters, repo men, pregnant teens, or the morbidly obese. In my house, I like to see the news/discussion programs. I tell my wife, Melody, that it's my job to watch them so I can write this rant. But every time I leave the room, the station has been changed to the Bravo channel when I return. I finally put my foot down and told her that I refused to watch this mindless, soulless dreck about self-absorbed women complaining about their privileged lives.
... So, as we were watching The Real Housewives of Orange County, I was commenting on how much better Tamra looked now that she's had her breast implants removed. But when I found myself concerned that the feud between Melissa and Teresa on The Real Housewives of New Jersey would rip their families apart, it occurred to me why we watch this stuff. In difficult times, if we can take a voyeuristic peek into the troubles of the wealthy or watch how Teresa's husband, Joe Giudice, faces 10 years in prison for forgery, it makes us feel better about our wretched lives. Or, as Joe Giudice is fond of philosophising, "It is what it is. What are you gonna do?"
Nothing about this window peeking is new, however. It began in 1973 with the PBS series An American Family, which documented the destruction of the Loud family, holding viewers entranced with weekly admissions of infidelity, drug use, and the coming out of a gay son. It all ended rather badly, however, and though it was ratings gold, no one seemed eager to repeat the experiment. Today's shows just skip the family trauma entirely and go straight to drug rehab, where burned-out former reality-show participants explain how they were genetically disposed to alcoholism and addiction.
After years of quiz, game, and talk shows that were ordinarily confined to daytime fare, the big bang of reality TV was The Real World, the show that took the "music" out of MTV. The success of The Real World spawned more shows where strangers are locked in a house and filmed over time: Big Brother, Last Comic Standing, Hell's Kitchen, The Apprentice, and the Frankenstinian Jersey Shore, which shamed a generation of young people. MTV, meanwhile, gave us celebrity home invasions like The Osbournes and Anna Nicole, the results of which were resolved in courts, clinics, and morgues. Another disaster was My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, where a prospective bride's family was led to believe she was marrying a disgusting buffoon, up until the phony wedding day when she confessed her hilarious deceit to her traumatized family, who all promptly sought counseling. After the success of Survival and the phrase "voted off the island" entered the lexicon, "reality" replaced writing, and we were left with Who Wants to be a Millionaire? seven days a week.
We've now seen all the Storage Wars episodes so that they are as quickly identifiable as Seinfeld reruns. We agree that the people on Pawn Stars in Las Vegas are more likable than the combustible family in Detroit's Hardcore Pawn, where every negative stereotype about angry black people and heartless Jewish pawnbrokers is played out for the cameras.
But nothing offends like the Kardashian family franchise. Begun as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the story of a family obsessed by surgery and celebrity, it has morphed into what seems a hundred spin-offs. Kim has her own following thanks to a public obsession with her gluteus maximus, and I do mean maximus, while her sisters document their marriages to athletes and basketball players, which seem to always end in heartache, as most reality unions do — just ask Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Choose your poison: American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, or Dancing With the Stars. Someday this will all come to an end and there will be more drama shows to choose from than Law & Order and CSI.
Until then, if you're entertained by television, it's a coincidence. If you're informed, it's a miracle. Unless you plan on trying to catch a catfish in a mudhole with your toes.
Randy Haspel writes the Born-Again Hippies blog, where this column first appeared.