The five biggest lies about so-called reality TV, according to me and author Jennifer Pozner
Think you have a tough job? Consider media critic Jennifer Pozner.
To assemble her biting tome on all the things wrong with so-called “reality TV,” Pozner spent nearly 10 years watching 1,000 hours of unscripted television shows ranging from The Swan and Extreme Makeover (both the home and people editions) to Flavor of Love, America’s Next Top Model, The Apprentice and The Bachelor.
The result, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, is a 389-page indictment of a television genre Pozner says suppresses analytical thought, encourages consumerism and manipulates reality to reinforce some of society’s worst stereotypes. See the website here.
“After watching the genre for several years, I kept hoping somebody else would write a book…finally I took one for the team and did it myself,” said Pozner, the founder and executive director of the advocacy group Women in Media & News.
“People have asked me if this has affected my mental health,” she said laughing. “It would have, if I wasn’t watching actively…Though I’m convinced there’s a special, separate place in Hell for people...where they make them transcribe every episode of Flavor of Love.”
With chapter names such as “Resisting Project Brainwash” and “Erasing Ethnicity, Encoding Bigotry,” Pozner dissects the techniques and images used to build storylines and engage viewers on most so-called reality shows. Her verdict: heavy editing and manipulation by producers creates a program artificial as any scripted show.
She also agreed with my central complaint about reality TV: Because producers are almost never shown or referred to on camera, the programs never acknowledge their influence on events. It’s a central dishonesty which leaves the viewer unable to fully trust anything they see on camera.
After interviewing Pozner and skimming her book, I devised the Five Biggest Lies of Reality TV, based on her observations:
Lie #1: Reality TV shows don’t have a social message – Producers often shrug off the social impact of their shows, saying they are entertainers not commentators. But Pozner notes ABC’s The Bachelor is filled with messages about the proper way women can attract a desirable man, often by hiding their own intelligence and achievements.
“We continue to watch because these shows…both play to and reinforce deeply ingrained social biases about women and men, love and beauty, race and class, consumption and happiness,” Pozner writes. “What are the implications of a nation of viewers gulping down…gendered myths as readily as we do the Cokes hawked on every episode of American Idol?”
Lie #2: Reality TV shows liberate people from stereotypes and bigotry – In separate chapters, Pozner contends messages behind The Bachelor (conniving women compete for a man), the original Extreme Makeover (enhancing a woman’s beauty solves all her problems) and Flavor of Love (oversexed, overly violent black and Latino women endure degrading challenges to win over a ex-drug addict with seven kids) reinforce damaging stereotypes about women and people of color.
In particular, the author singles out America’s Next Top Model star Tyra Banks for exhibiting a tortured form of “Stockholm syndrome” – vaulting between cartoonish narcissism and compassion for women’s issues, while insisting her show’s contestants meet the too-thin, de-racinated standards of the modern fashion industry.
Lie #3: Reality TV shows dominate television because viewers want them – True enough, reality shows such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars are TV’s highest-rated programs. But Pozner also notes that many lower-rated reality shows survive because they can cost 50 to 75 percent less than scripted programs and have multiple revenue streams, thanks to product placement and endorsement deals. “Reality shows often exist to fill airtime,” she said. “Because even before they air, they’ve already made revenue.”
Lie #4: Today’s audiences are too sophisticated for manipulation by reality TV producers – As Pozner writes, cynicism about media in general without a specific understanding of how shows manipulate viewers leaves consumers more vulnerable, because they assume they are above influence even as they are being manipulated.
Lie #5: Critical thinking about reality shows means rejecting them – Turns out, Pozner actually likes some reality shows -- VH1’s The Cho Show and Lifetime’s Project Runway, despite its consumerist message – and has included drinking games in the back of her book (drink when a thin girl is called fat on Top Model or when fights seems staged on Real Housewives).
“I’m not saying you have to divorce the Real Housewives,” she said. “I’m just saying you have watch with your brain engaged.”