My friends and I often dig at each other over the differences in our knowledge of popular culture. I fall firmly in the geek category–able to recite lines from Monty Python and Star Wars–more so than most of my chums. I catch some heat for knowing the name of the ThinkGeek monkey (Timmy) or for knowing what PCMCIA stands for (it’s not People Can’t Remember Computer Industry Acronyms).
Where my interests stray from others, and #Murica in general, is my lack of fascination with reality TV. It’s not just that I don’t enjoy watching others doing things that normal human beings would find disgusting/reprehensible/disturbing. It’s not even the ridiculous situations that the producers of many of these shows create as fishbowls for the rest of us to watch. I just hate the entire genre.
For me, the problem is related to physics. No, really, stay with me and I’ll explain. As a young scientist (before climbing the ivory tower of public education–#sarcasm), especially studying natural processes, the principle of the Observer Effect was drilled into me. From Wikipedia,
“[T]he term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.”
We are taught that just by observing a process we are affecting it. There is no such thing as observing how something behaves in the “real world”. We can never know with a high level of certainty that we aren’t changing the way something would normally act. This is an important idea for a few reasons. First, it reinforces that all observations are potentially tainted by our presence and we work to minimize this interference. Second, it forces us to acknowledge that our conclusions are not perfect. This probabilistic nature of science is one of its most critical tenets and I find myself repeating it in my classroom all the time.
So, back to reality television. The reason that I can never seem to get through ten minutes of a reality TV show is that I get hung up on the idea that it’s a lie. Even the most private interactions between two people include at least one other person and a video camera. Every frame of video that we see is filmed and the participants are (usually) aware of this. These are not, for the most part, hidden cameras. Picture a big guy with the camera and bunch of wires hanging off of it, and another person holding a boom mike up in the air out of the frame. Would you behave in a normal way if these people were right next to you? No.
The entire interaction that we are witnessing is artificial. It’s forced and manipulated and not real. While the words being spoken might not be scripted down to the word, they are not the result of normal thinking and behavior. The way the characters conduct themselves is not how they would behave if there was no camera crew present.
This may seem nit-picky or whiny, but the fact is that if I want to see how people behave in a candid situation, I’ll sit on a bench at the mall with an Orange Julius in my hand and people-watch. If I want to see how people act with a camera pointed at them, I’ll watch The Office or Arrested Development. Because even a mockumentary is honest about its dishonesty.
What do you see as the entertainment value of reality television?