Reality TV gives young viewers skewed view of life

"Real Housewives of New Jersey": About as based in reality as their Beverly Hills counterparts.
"Real Housewives of New Jersey": About as based in reality as their Beverly Hills counterparts.
Posted: March 25, 2011

I am breaking out my No. 2 pencil.

The most recent SAT actually had an essay question that concerned reality television. Some students complained that it put those who don't tune in at a disadvantage (but let's face it - the kids who don't spend their study time watching reality TV probably had an advantage on the reading and math sections). As one who doesn't watch much reality television, I'm sympathetic to the criticism. But in a bid to improve my own mediocre SAT score of three decades ago, I'm going to answer the question.

Here is part of the essay prompt and my response:

"How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes? Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality or are such forms of entertainment harmful?"

These shows are largely frauds that pose a danger to society when a gullible viewership causes life to imitate art (not the reverse).

Never has there been a bigger misnomer than "reality television" (although "cable news" probably gives the term a run for its money). Authentic? These programs are about as authentic as the nose on any one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

There is nothing remotely realistic about the bulk of these programs, and how could there be, given that: The participants have been typecast, everything they say is recorded, and the final product is edited to create conflict, plot points, and establish episode story arcs? They are placed in settings that are unquestionably more contrived than real (Jersey Shore in Miami?). The result is nothing close to "reality." Now, I admit that my mind-set can be as rigid as the Situation's midsection, but I don't think that my dislike of these shows is merely a reflection of my demographics.

What exactly is typical about Real Housewives? Certainly not their lips. Regardless of whether they live in Orange County or Atlanta, whenever I've clicked through, all I see are vacuous women with French manicures. If ever there were an argument for not extending the Bush tax cuts, it would be the Real Housewives.

And then there's The Millionaire Matchmaker, who claims a 99 percent success rate for her real-life business, the Millionaire's Club. But with the klieg lights on, I've noticed that contestants obsessed with things like Hello Kitty or who demand Jewish George Clooney-type men, for example, often leave the party alone.

But the granddaddy of all these shows is still MTV's Real World. The closest Real World ever got to reality was the labor turmoil that surrounded the program's launch in Old City Philadelphia a few years ago. Mayor John Street, Gov. Ed Rendell, Congressman Bob Brady, and others had to intervene to keep the show in Philly after the production team angered local unions by hiring a nonunion contractor to renovate the cast members' house. If that had been the season subject line, maybe I'd have watched.

It's easy to discount reality programming as just part of what Bruce Springsteen once described as "57 channels and nothin' on." But there is a harm being perpetrated. The danger comes when this programming gains an audience that imitates what they watch. This reverse (and often perverse) authentication is the worst kind of self-perpetuating behavior. When reality TV garners a young audience, those viewers imitate what they see in the characters. Instead of art imitating life - the theoretical basis of the programs - viewers mirror the debasing behavior they watch, and only then is it real reality television. I see signs of that already.

In spring 2008, Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough delivered a commencement address at Boston College in which he implored students to "cure the verbal virus" among young Americans. McCullough singled out a "relentless, wearisome use of words" such as like and awesome.

"Just imagine if in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy had said, 'Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually,' " McCullough deadpanned.

McCullough's examples sound like every Jersey Shore episode I have seen. It's as though he eavesdropped on a conversation between Snooki and Pauly D. Which is where, I suspect, the college students he addressed got their cues.

We glorify debauchery, buffoonery, and self-flagellation. And in the process we elevate to celebrity status a generation of stars famous only for their celebrity status and not their artistic contribution.

Lindsay Lohan. The Kardashians. Paris Hilton. The Rat Pack they aren't.

Now, get off my lawn!

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