Reality TV: Seller of Hyper-reality & Perverted Dreams
In 1992 cable TV executive framed the term ‘500-Channel Universe’ to indicate the future mediascape, where a vast number of TV channels would be available for all. In US, it was the year cable providers announced that their cable boxes will accommodate at least 500 channels. There was said to be a mixed sort of reaction about this. ‘Wouldn’t all the channels remain identical, full of movie re-runs, and sexually-oriented materials?’ thought one part of people. The other side was optimistic, ‘Now we’d get all those informative channels focusing on nature, environmental pollution, history’. We shouldn’t forget the big space this new boom provided for advertisers & buyers (or consumers). Actually, the cable box attached to our TV provided both: ridiculousness was juxtaposed with informative things. Now, we don’t even care about the 500 channels. Who needs that when you have internet – the purveyor of desires? If there is one thing I feel very bad about 500-channel universe, it is the birth of Reality TV. Every informative and foolish thing became boring at a point, and so the cameras focused on people ready to broadcast their lives, live on the box.
The vacuum of content gave birth to the most vacuous thing called ‘Reality TV’. What’s the most single thing I hate about Reality TV? The hunger to judge the beings on the other side of the screen. Detractors like me would often deride reality TV, calling it a form of ‘voyeurism’. A voyeur is an enthusiastic observer of sensational or sleazy things. Reality TV takes one further up the ladder. I mean it’s not voyeurism because we identify with the participants and sometimes even show sympathy for them (if ‘they’ failed in a contest final). Apart from identifying with person under public scrutiny, the predominant feeling is the desire to judge. When we see the obnoxious bad guy getting beaten by a hero on-screen, we get the guilty pleasure. Reality TV gives us the chance to derive the same guilty pleasure by judging people who are actually just like us. The biggest fallacy is that it is termed as ‘reality’. We can’t just push aside this as another form of entertainment. The ‘comparing’ & ‘contrasting’ things people perceive through such shows is a consumption of an authenticity. Except that, the authenticity is questionable.
The singing, dancing, cooking, dating shows or the act of observing group of performers in a rich house place an more important role in terms of constructing cultural context than mis-leading fictions. The perverted dreams Reality TV sells is sort of extended with the arrival of social media. Now, everyone has a camera and an online account to turn their real life into a ‘show’. They can mark their feelings, share their happy photos, bully people, and decorate their walls. Nevertheless, we can’t blame the technologies; it is ourselves who must be held responsible. Mankind’s desire to pervert or twist remarkable technological advancements is not something new. It’s been our race’s indelible quality to realize a beautiful dream, only to turn it into a nightmare.
The networks aren’t projecting reality into our boxes; they are simulating a reality. What’s worse is that they are simulating it to those who are easily getting attracted to it: the youngsters. The eventual goal is to not just cook up a reality; it is to cook up the desires of a generation. It is specularized that the shows are microcosmic representation of our society. It is obviously not. These shows allow participants from a cross section of society (rich and upper middle-class), pushing that manufactured dream into the minds of those who don’t belong to that cross-section (they are the majority of consumers). Reality TV might have commenced with the exhibition of extraordinary skill of a participant. Slowly they pushed skills to the background to make simple social interactions and negotiations as the crux of a show. Each and every country looks up to America not just for the new ideas regarding reality shows, but its participants behave in the same way the Americans do (in these shows).
American Historian Daniel Boorstin said on reality television, “a blending of reality and mass meditated experience that evokes life as a movie in which people play themselves”. Yes, the people ‘play’, not ‘live’. The mission for perfect reality television producers is to mix the few real elements and vast amount of hyper-authentic, fantasy elements. And, the success doesn’t just rely on the skills of show participant; it lies on how the viewers take this ‘constructed’ reality as authentic. The hyper-authenticity can work only if the viewers are also a participant. It may be better to read a really good article on this subject than my ramblings. But, it’s even better to watch fictions that firmly show how simulated reality perverts our dream and the sense of self. In that way, the most haunting fiction I have seen on the darker side of technological uses is the British TV series “Black Mirror” (2011-).
The anthology of stories predominantly conveys how our existentialist notions of identity will get corrupted with over-dependence on technology to survive. The first season’s 2nd episode “Fifteen Million Merits” is somehow relevant to this particular topic. This episode imagines a believable dystopian future where everyone in a closed community spend their days on exercise bikes, earning merits that can be used to purchase various forms of disposable entertainment. There are three classes of people in this society: the fat, yellow jump-suit wearing trash-pickers, the bikers, and the achievers – the one who succeeded to be the part of entertainment world. Then, there are three rich & foul-mouthed judges who make & break the participants. The only respite for bikers is to gain enough merits (15 million) to escape from their soul-crunching abode (sort of reminds us of Orwellian apartment in 1984). The protagonist of this tale Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), one day in the toilet hears an impressive singing voice of a girl. The voice belongs to a very beautiful girl – a newcomer to the place – named Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay).
The voice Bing feels is the only real thing around the place full of tidy screens, promoting artificiality. He is ready to give the girl his credits (which could be earned only after six months of rigorous biking). Bing is attracted to her, but the vital reason to do this is to feel that he has done something real. With the credits, Abi goes to talent show. The viewers watch from their own, congested single-bed apartment, but their animated online self sits on the viewer section of the show. The facial expressions & comments they make inside four walls are reflected by their animated, anonymous self. Abi sings well, even the judges says so. But at the same time, superficial judges call her ‘above average’ singer and that it would be excellent if she participated in porn entertainment. She is coerced to say yes, which will give a break from monotonous biking. Bing is crushed. In a most disturbing scene, the Bing is forced to see the clip for upcoming porn movie of Abi. He can’t close his eyes or close the clip, since the earned merits would be subtracted from the total. Then, Bing devises a plan to say ‘fuck you’ to the system.
The great factor of this episode is the ending. After hard work, Bing gets his entry to the talent show and makes an angry tirade at the judges and viewers. He says, “You don’t see people up here, it’s all only fodder”. His speech comes from inside; from his beliefs or from deep understanding of what’s right and wrong. Things suddenly turn disastrous, when the judge & the viewers even see the righteous anger as a form of entertainment. By the end, he achieves his dream of getting off the exercise bike (or to escape its monotonous nature). But, the talent show that sells a twisted reality now holds his ‘self’ as the prisoner. He and his thoughts are too a commodity. He will keep on selling the hyper-reality and endorse perverted dreams to people whose thoughts are induced by things they see on big, flat screens.