For a while now, I’ve been highly critical of Reality Television.  Once it was an interesting cultural study of watching people of differing backgrounds and ideals living together in “The Real World”, but now it’s become cheap and lazy entertainment.  When I say lazy, I’m not talking about the audience taking it in, but the companies producing these shows.  Compared to a scripted sitcom or drama, a reality show takes far less production and effort to create, yet still makes millions.  The most common retort I’ve heard when I make such complaints is, “It’s just entertainment.”  While I agree that entertainment can come in all forms, from lazy to complex, I feel we should take a look at what we as a society are taking in and accepting as “entertainment”.

First, why is it important to analyze reality television and the images we are being given?  Well, it is always important to analyze and critique what we take in to make sure it is of a quality level.  When you become content with low quality in one aspect of life, aren’t you more likely to turn a blind eye to low quality in other aspects?  Also, reality television has become a strange form of family entertainment, with families coming together to watch the latest subtitled adventures of “Honey Boo Boo” or “Duck Dynasty”.  With reality TV being “family entertainment”, we do have to take some time to really think about what our children are being exposed to.  Recently I was shocked to hear a family member express absolute pride over her two children passionately discussing “Big Brother” in the back seat of the car.  Don’t think our children are taking it in?  This is from a morning radio show last week where they were asking children trivia questions on their way to school…

Question:  Which President is responsible for freeing the slaves?

Child (maybe 12 years old):  Um… um… um… um… um… Abraham Lincoln? 

Question:  Ok, how many stripes are on the American flag?

Child:  Um… um… um… um… um… 15? 

Question:  What is the name of Honey Boo Boo’s dad?

Child:  Sugar Bear!

This girl who was in middle school struggled with two basic questions of American history, getting one wrong, yet she immediately answered a question about “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”.  Strange priorities, don’t you think?

The biggest issue with Reality TV, is the type of people and mentalities that are being glorified, and in some cases idolized.  MTV, the once glorious home of cutting edge music, is now just one reality show after another, such as “16 and Pregnant” which actually glorifies teen pregnancy.  Sure, they are trying to show the downside and consequences of teen pregnancy, but they are paying these girls more than some college grads are making, and making them celebrities in the process.  They are being paid handsomely and can parlay their fame into other ventures, like Farrah Abraham turning to porn, so where are the real consequences?  What are we watching in the ever popular “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”?  Well, “Mama June” gained fame for sexualizing her daughter in toddler beauty pageants, has four children from four different fathers, and is already a grandmother at an age where other women are having their first child.  All of this is behavior we discourage and condemn in regular society, but because its “just entertainment”, we condone and reward it on reality TV.

A teen mom turned porn star, a 32-year-old grandmother, and a spoiled brat. All stars thanks to reality television. (Image Credits: Ethan Miller/Getty Images, The Learning Channel, and Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

The idea of rewarding actions we would otherwise condemn is prevalent in reality competition shows as well, such as “Big Brother” and “Survivor”.  Most of these shows thrive on the backstabbing and manipulation to tell their story, focusing on and rewarding those who use deception to advance in the game.  Making alliances, sabotaging others, and targeting the strongest player have become more common place than actually trying to be the strongest player.  Others have argued that such tactics are a core part of the game in these types of shows, which just goes to advance the notion of rewarding underhanded tactics.  Often the use of these tactics goes unpunished, but sometimes they can turn around and spell defeat for the perceived villains.   On a recent episode of the CW show “Capture”, the villainous Blue Team was captured during the first day of the 4th hunt and subsequently voted off by the remaining teams for their actions, which included bullying other players and sabotaging a food stand so other players wouldn’t have the chance for extra food.  It seems that shows where the players win on their abilities alone and are not in a position to vote each other out or sabotage other players are the shows that don’t last as long.  “The Mole” was an intriguing premise where the contestants, and in turn the audience, had to figure out which of the contestants was a mole working for the show and sabotaging the games.  Players were not eliminated by being voted off or targeted because they were the strongest player, but because they achieved the lowest score on the regular quiz to identify the mole.  A show where the strongest players thrived and the weaker players floundered and it only lasted five seasons, of which seasons 3 and 4 were “Celebrity Mole”, the usual death note for a reality series, and season 5 finally happening four years after season 4.  I’m not saying all shows are like this, just most.  “The Amazing Race” is definitely a successful show where the contestants are eliminated for being the bottom team and not because they are strong and targeted by the weaker players.  The WWE jumped into reality television competitions with “Tough Enough” lasting 3 seasons on MTV and a one-season revival on the USA Network.  Another show where the strong survive and the weak are eliminated, the revival was cancelled after one season in favor of the new “Total Divas” on E!, a Kardashian style show focusing on the behind the scenes lives and drama of a few WWE Divas, who are now receiving more screen time on the actual wrestling shows even though they aren’t as accomplished performers as those not featured on “Total Divas”.

"The tribe has spoken. You're the strongest person here and a threat to the weaker players. You must go." (Image via CBS)

Yes, I’m putting far more thought into this than a lot of people do.  As we’ve already gone over, reality TV is just entertainment, a distraction for the end of a long day at work that regularly doesn't get a second thought.  But we have to be conscious of the images we are endorsing by watching these shows and buying into them.  In our daily lives we discourage teen pregnancy, but in watching “16 and Pregnant” we are helping to provide these teen mothers with money and fame.  A 32-year-old grandmother with four baby-daddies and a toddler dressing as a prostitute in a pageant would be a neighbor you’d hate to have, but in a reality show she becomes a cultural icon.  Many of us were raised to be honorable and work hard to be the best in whatever we do, but if you want to be on a reality competition, something millions try out for each year, that actually puts you at a disadvantage.  We always hear people complain about the Kardashian family, ridiculing them for their conceited and spoiled attitudes, yet the viewership of their shows and merchandising sales goes to show there are many people who complain about them in public and then go home to watch their guilty pleasure.  We see characters like these people in scripted television shows, but even when they are the focal point, such as “Breaking Bad”, we watch knowing that they will get what’s coming to them in the end, actual consequences for their terrible actions.  We could debate endlessly as to whether reality TV is the cause of unsavory attitudes in society, or just the symptom of those pre-existing attitudes, but nevertheless they exist.  Reality TV rarely follows those who are worthy of being looked up to and idolized.  Instead we like laughing at the court jesters on “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives”, but in doing so we are giving success and justification to the attitudes of these people we find funny to watch but deplorable in true reality.  And we watch competition shows where it’s easier to take out the strongest person than to actually work to be the strongest.