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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2010

New book explores truth about reality TV

My take on reality TV has long been this: It's become a genre just like any other (comedy, drama, news) and it won't go away until viewers quit watching it, which doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Who's to blame for this lowest-common-denominator programming? Network executives for putting it on the air, advertisers for supporting it, and viewers for lapping it up.

Pozner argues that networks are not giving viewers what they want because reality-show ratings are lower than ratings for quality scripted shows that get canceled. In some cases, that's true — networks will tolerate lower ratings from some reality shows that are significantly less expensive to produce than scripted dramas. But not all reality shows are cheap (Survivor, with age, has gotten pretty pricey over the years) and it would not be fair to compare ratings for an inexpensive-to-produce series like Bridalplasty on basic cable to NBC's recently canceled Outlaw.

Broadcast and cable channels operate using different economic models, and what's a hit for cable would be a dud for broadcast. (Outlaw averaged 5.8 million viewers and got canceled; Bridalplasty premiered with almost 900,000 total viewers, a death knell for a broadcast-network series, but that turnout improved on E!'s norm in the time period for the previous four weeks by 20 percent.)

So I don't completely agree with Pozner that “giving people what they want is a myth,” because some people do want to watch this train-wreck TV. In Reality Bites Back, she acknowledges the schadenfreude appeal of reality shows — “no matter how messed up my life is, at least I'm not on a TV show called Tool Academy” — and in a phone interview she insisted that her goal is not to get viewers to quit watching reality TV. She just wants them to think about it critically, a form of media-literacy advocacy I wholeheartedly endorse.

“I'm trying to get people to engage with their active, mental faculties while they're being entertained,” she said. To that end, Reality Bites Back takes viewers behind the scenes of many reality shows, explaining the concept of “frankenbiting” — taking bits of a reality star's dialogue from unrelated conversations and editing them together to create something new — and debunking the notion of a reality show as a so-called “social experiment.”

“That is just patently untrue because that eliminates from focus the role of casting directors, the role of producers behind the scenes, the role of story editors, and writers,” she said. “Casting directors look for people who promise to behave in different ways, usually with an anger-management problem or they're unstable and they keep these people in extremely unreal situations that are structurally designed to break down their defenses.

“The intentional, stated goal of most reality-show editors is going in and looking for that 1 percent of film they can use to edit real people into stock characters. A real social experiment would be a lot more hands-off than that.”

She spends a good bit of Reality Bites Back explaining the ways in which reality shows reinforce gender and racial stereotypes.

Comparing The Bachelor to The Bachelorette, she said the women competing for “love” on ABC's The Bachelor are portrayed as catty, desperate, and heartbroken when they're forced to leave the competition. But the guys vying for the hand of The Bachelorette are only assumed to leave the show with a bruised ego or to leave “empty-handed,” which suggests the woman is a commodity to be won, completely taking the notion of potential love out of the equation.

As for reality TV's track record when it comes to minorities, Pozner points out that people of color are barely visible, rarely the central figure, and often they appear in just the first few episodes of a competition program before they are eliminated. When they are not invisible, they're often conforming to culturally ingrained stereotypes such as “the angry black woman” (think: Omarosa on The Apprentice or any number of contestants on America's Next Top Model) or they're put in leading roles on what Pozner calls modern-day minstrel shows like 2006's VH1 embarrassment, Flavor of Love (women competed for the affection of Flavor Flav).

“Black men were buffoons and fools and you had the idea that black women were not only uneducated and unintelligent, but they were hyper-sexual and promiscuous,” she said. “Then you've got a VH1 show like From Gs to Gents where basically black and Latino men were portrayed as criminal thugs, pimps, and assorted ne'er-do-wells who could only possibly become rehabilitated into upstanding sophisticated gentlemen through the benevolent help of Viacom. That is so, so problematic.”

She acknowledged that some reality shows do a better job than others — Project Runway features artists of assorted ethnicities on a regular basis — but for the most part black professionals are rarely shown.

“We're not seeing people of color in the name of ‘reality' engaging in day-to-day life in ways that show the diversity of their experience,” she said. “Or forget about the diversity of their experience; they're not even showing them as human beings with dignity at all.”

As Pozner points out in her book, media is our most common element of socialization. When reality TV is placed in the larger context of television, where generally the majority of scripted series under-represent people of color, then reality TV does an even greater disservice.

“If reality TV is the place we're seeing more people of color and this is the way they are portrayed, how problematic is that?” she said.

Pozner advises viewers to become more critical of the shows they see. As executive director of Women in Media & News, she advocates training the next generation of media consumers to see through entertainment-industry hype, the product-placement deals that function as advertising, and the unreal situations reality shows employ.

“It's not my job to get viewers to divorce The Real Housewives or dump The Bachelor,” she said. “I'm trying to get people to learn how to retrain their critical eye. No matter how entertaining a show may or may not be, there is still so much going on under the surface in terms of commercial and ideological persuasion.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen writes for the Post-Gazette.



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