EDITORIAL – 2 new columns: Sounding Off, Dubious Reality

March 05, 2003

This week: 2 new columns
Flicks & Folios: Reviews Of Books And Films, by Laura Seymour
Sounding Off: Your take on the issues of today

Everybody’s got an opinion, and everybody wants to be heard.

Here’s your chance. In our new column, SOUNDING OFF, we’ll explore a different topic each week and print the best responses from the readers.

Next week, for our first SOUNDING OFF column we’ll focus on the issue that’s on everybody’s mind – The War on Iraq.

How do you feel about the war, about Canada’s involvement, and about the approach taken by the united states. Is Iraq truly a threat to the western world, and if so, is war the answer?

Take off the gloves and give us your best shot – we’re ready:
Email your 250 words or less response to voice@ausu.org. Replies will be edited for grammar, spelling, and length if required.

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DUBIOUS REALITY

Lately I’ve been mired in reality. Through four years of university, I’ve gone from reading two or three novels per week to reading nothing but textbooks, research papers, statistical analyses, professional journals, and course materials. I edit this publication, which is a fun and exciting job, but it also requires me to be objective, discerning, and a stickler for grammar, syntax, tense and spelling. Even my most rewarding hobby – the eternal project that is my first novel (I have many pages, but no chapters; dozens of plot points, but few links between them) – has been overshadowed lately by my work to improve my academic writing and become a saleable essayist. It’s engaging work, but once again I have replaced something that was full of spontaneity and creativity with something that keeps keep my feet on the ground and my focus on reality.

Reality: the word is been bandied about quite a bit lately, usually in the most inappropriate contexts. So much so that I feel compelled to place the word in quotes whenever I write it. It may be the first word to become inherently ironic.

Television is the cause. So much of what we see on the tube these days is said to be based on reality. This annoys me, because on the rare occasions that I have time to watch TV, I’m looking for a break from the relentless reality of my life. Maybe it’s not a problem, though, because what these shows offer is a very dubious reality. No one believes that anything they see on these programs is real, do they? The evidence to the contrary is certainly abundant. Take Survivor, for instance. Any of its incarnations will do, but right now the Australian edition of the program comes to mind, and its picture-perfect finalists, Elizabeth and Colby: America’s sweethearts. We are to believe that the cutesy twosome had been on this “?remote’ island without any amenities – no shower, no toothpaste, no razors, soap, makeup, dentists, physicians, or even nutritious food – for over forty days.

Forty days without a proper wash, a mirror, a blow dryer, or a cosmetician, and yet in every episode these two blinded us with their over-bleached teeth [how is it that all of these financially challenged young contestants can afford movie-star quality dental bleachings? You can’t get that obnoixious glacier-white from Crest White Strips:], their shimmering hair, and their gleaming, satiny skin. Perhaps they are simply genetic marvels? They would have to be, because I assure you that after 40 days without washing my hair I’d be sporting some skanky, oily dreadlocks. Wouldn’t you? I’ll tell you something else. After 40 days without a razor, you definitely would not want to see me in a string bikini. Nuff said.

I feel comfortable saying these things, because I’m pretty sure everybody can relate. If you have ever been camping for three days without a shower, you have a pretty good idea of how quickly glamour fades when there’s no access to electricity or modern cosmetics.

So, it is obvious that there really is no reality behind Reality TV. One look at Elizabeth and Colby on day 40, and you can almost picture them in the makeup chair each morning, as a hive of busy estheticians ensures that they are shaved, coifed, and dentifriced to perfection. No shrubbery is allowed to grow in Liz’s pristine armpits, no way! Bad for the ratings:

Still, you wonder if people can actually be blind to all of this. When, after the end of the first Survivor series, one of the contestants claimed the game was rigged, it was major news! Could it be that viewers believed the show’s producers would leave the outcome up to chance in order to provide a fair experience to a group of nobodies, when millions and millions of advertising dollars were riding on the show’s ratings?

As reality shows proliferate, the big question is: how much do viewers really believe? It is becoming a very relevant question. Lately about half of what’s on television is “reality” programming, and with good reason. Economics drive television programming, and reality TV is damn good business.

Consider that the cast of Friends are making about a million dollars an episode each. That’s $6 million for every episode just for the cast! Add to that the cost of sets, costumes, script writers, producers, directors, and extra actors and the production budget continues to swell. Clearly, television shows bring in enough money to pay for all of this, or these high salaries would never be approved.

Now consider a show like Survivor, or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The shows are massive ratings hits and ratings are what determine the income of a show – not production costs. In fact, it costs very little to make a “reality” show. The “actors” on survivor don’t get paid at all. At best, one of them will earn a measly $1 million, and the shows producers will play it up like they’re breaking the bank. Add to that the smaller prizes that the runners-up win, the promo items are given away – most of which are donated anyway – and you may reach a sum of $2 million – one third of the actors budget for a single episode of Friends. The sets are cheap, and there is only one location, so the shooting costs are also minimal. Can you imagine the profits? I can’t, but they must be spectacular.

Millioinaire gives out the top prize only one or two times a season, and they complain that people are winning too often. But, add Jennifer Aniston as a co-host and they’d be dropping that much more for each and every episode.

The next time you wonder why the networks keep cramming all this reality television down our throats, remember that these programs are a license to print money. They have attained the capitalists dream – where they once sold a very expensive product and made a fortune, they have now figured out how to cut production costs to a tiny fraction, without diminishing their returns. As a result, the profit margins swell without any noticeable increase in market share. Understand this, because this is why the networks are not going to stop making “reality television”. However, audiences are getting bored with these shows, so in order to keep them the networks will have to keep pushing the envelope. How far will it go?

Literature, in hindsight, so often seems prophetic. Years ago, when Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, the thought of an adolescent boy raping, thieving and murdering for kicks seemed unthinkable. Today, that and worse have become commonplace.

Reality TV brings to mind some of the earlier writings of Stephen King. Actually they are the writings of Richard Bachman, King’s cynical (and much more sinister) alter ego. These books now seem prophetic too. In Rage, for example, a frustrated teen student vents his spleen upon his fellow students and his teacher, whom he holds hostage at gunpoint. The similarity to Columbine and other rage-related school tragedies is obvious. King, as Bachman, also wrote several stories about violent, futuristic game shows. The best known of these is The Running Man, made into a film with Arnold Schwartzenegger. The film is very different from the novel, but they share a common backdrop of a brutal game show where people risk their lives for the entertainment of the slavering, jaded masses. In another story, The Long Walk, young people sign up to walk relentlessly across country in a contest where anyone who stops or walks too slow will be shot and killed on the spot: last one alive wins.

The stories are fantastic – I doubt that we will ever go that far for entertainment, but then I am surprised lately by the kinds of risks that many shows are taking. I recall a recent episode of Fear Factor – a celebrity edition – that required contestants to sit inside a parked car and try to find the correct key to get it started before a monster truck could cross over a row of junk cars and then drive over their own vehicle. Two of the four contestants didn’t get their car started in time, and were driven over. The car was equipped with a reinforced roof, roll cage, and other safety devices, but this hardly seems adequate. There was nothing to protect the driver should a shard of metal or a piece of glass be thrust toward them, and there was no way to protect them if the monster truck had veered to the side and punched one of its massive tires through the windshield.

This is not the only episode of Fear Factor that has taken foolish risks. On another, contestants were required to shove their hands into the mouths of massive fish to retrieve a disk that would tell them what disgusting fish part they had to eat (this part of the program should be called “Gross Factor” or “Demeaning for Dollars”). Although the fish parts the contestants had to eat appeared fresh, the fish containing the disks were clearly rotten – (the eyes were actually oozing and deflated – a sign of advanced decomposition). The “?challenge’ was to retrieve the disk without vomiting from the stench. Predictably, when one of the girls slipped her hand into the fish, she cut herself quite badly on the jagged teeth and she was bleeding quite a bit as she removed her hand. While this might have seemed a benign injury, it struck me right away that her wound would be filled with bacteria from that rotten fish. Sure enough, as I watched the girl stand off to the side of the screen waiting her turn to gobble up raw fish entrails, she winced and squirmed and rubbed her wound worriedly. A short time later she was removed from the show. The announcer explained that she had had to be taken to the hospital due to a rare allergic reaction to the fish. They apparently even managed to convince her of this cover story, because moments later they aired a more recent videotape of the recovered girl who said incredulously “I had no idea I was allergic to fish! ” As though you have to be allergic to fish to suffer septicaemia from a filthy cut.

These are just two examples, but I very rarely watch TV. How far will they go, and how many lives will they risk to get ratings? We think that if someone were to die on one of these show it would be all over for that network, but would it? Or would more people tune in just see what would happen? When the first of the reality dating shows, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, ended in scandal, it was said that they would never be able to make another show like that again. On the contrary, there are now at least half a dozen reality dating shows on television, many of them ending in “?marriage’ (you see how this subject prompts the use of quotations marks around so many concrete terms?).

The dating shows are even more obviously fake than the Survivor type. So far, every one has ended with the happy couple going their separate ways, but people still tune in to see who will get married. Maybe no one really believes in the marriage anyway, and they only watch to see who will get picked. If so, then maybe we don’t care of our reality TV is real or not, we just want it to be exciting.
Unfortunately, it seems that the only things that excite us are watching people demean themselves, or risk their lives.

Are safety, morality and good sense even factors when profits from a single season can reach hundreds of millions of dollars?

The television networks used to hope to produce the next Cheers, Seinfeld, M.A.S.H., or Hill Street Blues. These shows were once the cash cows, but once the networks figured out how much more money they could make by drawing the same ratings and the same advertising dollars, without the massive drain of high paid stars, expensive sets, and hit-making writers; the gloves came off. To discontinue these reality shows and go back to a full roster of traditional sitcoms, dramas, and actions series would dramatically reduce the current profit-ratio that the networks enjoy, and in business it doesn’t matter that you’re making enough money to stay in the black, it only matters that you make more money than you did last year. There is no going back. The networks are desperate, they must keep us watching reality TV, no matter what it takes.

That’s the reality.

Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief

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