Thursday, May 24, 2018
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What's wrong with Reality TV?

Hi, Bert:

This is Amy, Hack’s eldest daughter. I’m visiting for the Memorial Day weekend and dad asked if I had any ideas for your next blog.

Yeah, I told him. Reality TV. I’m sick of it. Isn’t he? Aren’t you?

Of course, when I suggested it I saw that blank fog of a curtain drop between our faces. The one that reminds me that I am the spawn of a dinosaur.

"Like, what do you mean?" he said.

So I started naming reality shows, one after another, waiting for the merest glimmer of recognition.

"Aw, hell, you just write it," dad said.

(I don’t know if will print the word hell, but that’s what he said, Bert. I’ve lived with a writer long enough to know that you should quote people directly. Plus, he always says it gives the editors something to do.)

So, here goes.

When and where should reality TV draw the line?

I asked my dad what he watched as a kid and he said "Lassie" and "Lucy" and, of course, "Father Knows Best." I’ve heard the story before of how he used to cry when he heard the Lassie theme song because he knew when the show was over he had to go to bed and the weekend was over. What a wimp.

I was thinking more of the "Partridge Family," "Star Trek," and "The Brady Bunch." You know, just good old-fashioned TV with some family values that everyone could sit in the living room at night and watch while eating a bowl of ice cream.

I just want to know who came up with the reality TV genre, and why can’t Americans get enough of it? I mean, every night you turn on the TV and at least 50 cable channels are running shows with a reality spin. Bert, truthfully I would rather watch a Senate vote on C-Span than watch Simon and Paula pick the next megastar on "American Idol." I believe MTV started this whole thing with "Real World," and has since added about 20 other shows to go along with it. I remember the days when you could actually turn on MTV and see a music video … not anymore. I haven’t seen one in years.

Now, we have shows about girls picking out wedding dresses and being bridezillas, upcoming wanna-be chefs trying to make the perfect dish so they can own restaurants someday, and families with multiple children and how they survive on a daily basis — like it is a new concept in our world. I don’t know about you Bert, but when I was growing up, there was a family up the street with 8 or 9 kids, I don’t exactly remember, and they didn’t require a reality TV show to get by and pay the bills. Now, there are families living in $1 million estates in exchange for cameras rolling all day long. I am pretty sure if a camera crew had showed up at our door my old man would have politely told them to go away. Politely. Yeah, right.

What is it that appeals to so many people? I mean, is a person honestly going to lose sleep at night if they don’t get to see who crosses the finish line first on "The Amazing Race" or who "The Bachelor" is going to pick as his future wife? Is our society so shallow that we have to live vicariously through reality TV stars to realize that our lives aren’t so bad?

Now, I am not saying all these shows are completely ludicrous. I recently discovered a new reality series on the Animal Planet called "Jockeys" (yes, there is more to that channel than just monkeys running around in the wild). It focuses on six jockeys, the horses they ride, the money they make, and how the horse racing business actually works. I actually LEARNED a lot and have been stuck to the television in the past month to see if my favorite jockey from that show and his horse would win the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. (Dad, the sports columnist, is actually pretty impressed with my knowledge of horse racing, too.)

Bert, I know you have a college-age daughter who probably has her favorite reality series she wouldn’t miss for anything. Truth of the matter is we come from the generation of technology, the Internet, and as much as I hate to say it, reality TV. When I picked up the cover of People magazine recently and the cover story was about the failing marriage of Jon and Kate plus 8 – two working people from the suburbs just like you and your husband and my parents, but ones who chose to have their family life turned upside-down for a payday — I wonder how TV has come to this and why we can’t take our eyes off the television at night.

Do you have any answers?


Amy Walker



Roberta deBoer


Oh my gosh, little Amy Hackenberg! Er, Walker. Why, I haven’t seen you since ...

Never mind. I won’t do that to either of us. Let me just say: Hello, Ms. Walker, how lovely to hear from your grown-up self. Let me also just say your dad still has the magic touch for getting you to do chores. In this case, his chores, but I digress.

Today’s question: Reality TV. You want to know if I have any answers, and as a professional know-it-all, I do. One word, baby: $.

For the same amount of money, you can either produce a prime time non-news program or bailout a U.S. automaker. Well, OK, maybe not the exact same amount. But the point is, it’s a lot cheaper to point cameras at willing victims — er, reality TV subjects — in their own plain vanilla homes than it is to create another episode of "Desperate Housewives."

That Americans seem to like watching these shows is a happy and profitable coincidence for programming execs. People who study pop culture for a living no doubt have a lot to say about our eager consumption of other people’s lives, but I’ll just leave it at this:

I can’t quite decide whether MTV’s "My Sweet Sixteen" or the Bravo Channel’s "Real Housewives" franchise displays American society at its absolute worst.

That daughter of mine you mentioned, by the way, is a "Top Chef" devotee, which is odd, considering she could not so much as boil an egg if her life depended on it, i.e., I’m not sure what the appeal is for her with that show.

Let me also just say that I’m pretty sure you and I must be the only people in America who didn’t watch the "American Idol" finale, and didn’t much care, either. Really? A singing contest? Sigh.

On the other hand, Amy, when you took an inventory of your old man’s TV-watching history, you got me thinking about some of the stuff I used to watch. Religiously. And man, what wretched stuff! No wonder my mother was always running around shouting, "Turn off that boob tube!" (Really, Amy, that’s what people used to call it, even before the Miss USA contest and "Dr. 90210" were regularly televised.)

"The Monkees." "Dark Shadows." "Hogan’s Heroes." "Get Smart." "Laugh In." "The Sonny and Cher Show."

You’re perhaps getting the idea I’m a wee bit younger than your dad, which is true, but not by much. I, too, remember the theme from "Lassie." Did your old man used to watch "Sky King," too? Or that Sunday morning staple, "Davey & Goliath?"

Oh, fine. Make me go all nostalgic, Amy — and for television, no less!

Although, you know what? The old Dick Van Dyke show? Now that was funny.




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