Ethics & Reality TV
Should We Really Watch?
Media both in America and around the world seem to have "discovered" that so-called "reality" shows are very profitable, resulting in a growing string of such shows in recent years. Although not all are successful, many do achieve significant popularity and cultural prominence. That does not mean, however, that they are good for society or that they should be aired. The first thing to keep in mind is that "Reality TV" is nothing new - one of the most popular examples of this sort of entertainment is also one of the oldest, "Candid Camera." Originally created by Allen Funt, it showcased hidden video of people in all manner of unusual and strange situations and was popular for many years. Even game shows, long a standard on television, are a sort of "Reality TV." Today's programming, including a new version of "Candid Camera" produced by Funt's son, goes quite a bit further. The primary basis for many of these shows (but not all) seems to be to put people in painful, embarrassing, and humiliating situations for the rest of us to watch - and, presumably, laugh at and be entertained by. These reality TV shows wouldn't be made if we didn't watch them, so why do we watch them? Either we find them entertaining or we find them so shocking that we are simply unable to turn away. I'm not sure that the latter is an entirely defensible reason for supporting such programming; turning away is as easy as hitting a button on the remote control. The former, however, is a bit more interesting. Humiliation as Entertainment
What we are looking at here is, I think, an extension of Schadenfreude, a German word used to describe people's delight and entertainment at the failings and problems of others. If you laugh at someone slipping on the ice, that's Schadenfreude. If you take pleasure in the downfall of a company you dislike, that is also Schadenfreude. The latter example is certainly understandable, but I don't think that's what we're seeing here. After all, we don't know the people on reality shows. So what causes us to derive entertainment from the suffering of others? Certainly there may be catharsis involved, but that is also achieved through fiction - we don't need to see a real person suffer in order to have a cathartic experience. Perhaps we are simply happy that these things aren't happening to us, but that seems more reasonable when we see something accidental and spontaneous rather than something deliberately staged for our amusement. That people do suffer on some reality TV shows is beyond question - the very existence of reality programming may be threatened by the increase in lawsuits by people who have been injured and/or traumatized by the stunts these shows have staged. One of the reasons such programming is attractive is that it can be much cheaper than traditional shows, but that may change as insurance premiums for reality TV begin to reflect higher to insurers. There is never any attempt to justify these shows as enriching or worthwhile in any way, though certainly not every program needs to be educational or highbrow. Nevertheless, it does raise the question as to why they are made. Perhaps a clue about what is going on lies in the aforementioned lawsuits. According to Barry B. Langberg, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents one couple: Something like this is done for no other reason than to embarrass people or humiliate them or scare them. The producers don't care about human feelings. They don't care about being decent. They only care about money." Comments from various reality TV producers often fail to demonstrate much sympathy or concern with what their subjects experience - what we are seeing is a great callousness towards other human beings who are treated as means towards achieving financial and commercial success, regardless of the consequences for them. Injuries, humiliation, suffering, and higher insurance rates are all just the "cost of doing business" and a...
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