Today, we tackle a question that’s plagued society for years—is reality TV really the devil? It’s been blamed for courting national controversies, reinforcing stereotypes of certain subcultures, facilitating a few suicides, and being at least part of the reason we never win the spelling bee anymore.
But for some reason, it’s everywhere, and we say it’s not all bad. It’s easy to act snobby and pretend your brain is too important to be sullied by it, but we all watch it, and it’s high time somebody gave it its due.
Here are five reasons why reality TV doesn’t deserve your undue scorn.
5. They have a knack for bolstering local economies
If you own a small mom-and-pop type business and are constantly looking for ways to avoid getting castrated by the corporate tide, you can’t do much better for yourself advertising-wise than appearing on a reality show. Not only is appearing on a show free, but sometimes an establishment might even receive a fee from producers to be used on camera.
Take Jersey Shore, for example. A year ago, the governor of New Jersey himself went on live TV and pretty much shit on the whole cast, carping on about how they don’t really represent the “real” New Jersey, and how they give the state a bad name, and how the real New Jersey flows with rivers of chocolate wherever Snooki and The Situation aren’t.
Maybe the governor thought he was speaking for everybody, but can you guess who couldn’t possibly care less about who represents what? Anybody that owns a business in Seaside Heights, that’s who. They went against their beloved governor because ever since MTV picked their little seasonal resort town out of a hat to film, it’s been like Christmas in July, keeping hotel staff and catering services humming enough to offer free screenings for all.
4. They force scripted TV to get better
TV can’t get away with actually spending money to hire people to put out crap like they used to, anymore. Of course, they still put out crap, but now the axe is perpetually hanging over their heads, whispering “Can’t do better than The Paul Reiser Show? Fine, no problem! We don’t need you! We’ll put a bunch of insecure models in the same house and have Tyra Banks tell them that they’re too fat! That they’re too fat!!!”
Reality TV raises the evolutionary level of every other genre of TV just by existing. It breathes the mighty fire of social Darwinism to ensure that it’s the only game in town that will make you want to punch the screen in anger. It functions for the rest of TV the same way “Hamsterdam” did for the rest of West Baltimore in season three of The Wire—it focuses the stupidity of culture into one genre of TV so everybody else can do their thing.
3. They open the door for cultural taboos & other mundane stuff
Reality TV has historically not lacked for brass in engaging in dicey cultural issues that regular programming tends to stay away from. Stuff like drug addiction, racism, classism, AIDS, and homosexuality have all been given a visceral platform to be presented and debated about that wouldn’t have been possible with regular programming.
Besides being a conduit for controversial subjects, reality TV opens up whole new worlds and makes you care about some pretty unlikely stuff. Stuff like trucking, crab fishing, and logging. If there’s a greater champion for middle-class work, we haven’t seen it. Before Ice Road Truckers, words like “intimidating” and “lesbian” and “rest stop” and “mouth” and “penis” might’ve popped into your head when thinking about truckers. Or maybe that’s just us.
The point is, truckers, fishermen and lumberjacks now kick ass thanks to reality TV.
2. They ‘ve made getting rich & famous infinitely easier
Reality TV has changed the fame game. Yeah, we know—privileged insight from The Smoking Jacket. Simply put, reality TV has made it so you don’t really need the talent anymore to “make it.” Talent and fame haven’t always run hand in hand, but once upon a time it was sort of expected of a person to be able to uphold certain talents we’ve culturally attached to fame, whether it was singing, acting, dancing, or just being born with a pretty face.
Now, one only needs to do things like get knocked up in high school (16 & Pregnant, Teen Mom), or be rich & jobless (Real Housewives of wherever), or be an incredible asshole (Hell’s Kitchen), or be a urinal for black dudes (Keeping Up with the Kardashians), or be an incredible asshole (Bad Girls Club). Sounds like stuff everybody can do, right?
Of course, all the fame and money still comes at a price. That hasn’t changed. But nobody cares about that stuff when they’re chasing fame anymore than a crank addict worries about constipation when he’s chasing the dragon. Reality TV fame is mostly a matter of exploitation. They exploit situations and issues that have a certain train-wreck quality. The only question is whether you’re willing to be exploited or not.
1. They help pay for the good content
In a cultural sense, one could argue (if they parroted enough Dateline NBC) that they too easily turn us all into couch potato idiots who don’t care enough about starving African kids, or saving the rainforest. Which may be true, but this low-brow entertainment wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has if it wasn’t doing something right. By something right, we of course mean money. Easy money.
It’s not hard to see how. Producing and airing a season of Survivor costs anywhere from half to a quarter of what it would take to produce a season of Cold Case, or Grey’s Anatomy. There aren’t any writers, or actors, or film crews to pay on a union scale, or health-care and pension benefits to think about since technically it’s all “non-narrative.” It’s an unbeatable profit formula as long as nobody gets sick of it, and it doesn’t look like anybody is—as much as they like to publicly claim otherwise.
In this way, reality TV is to the business of TV what cocaine was to Miami in the late 70s and early 80s—a scourge laundered and put to good use. The money earned from cheap shows like The Bachelorette end up paying for quality shows like LOST the same way money earned from a shipment of yeyo paid for a bank, or skyscraper, or nightclub, or car dealership that wouldn’t have existed in Vice City, otherwise. A few dozen dead bodies wouldn’t have existed otherwise, either, but we digress.