Follow Eric Deggans on twitter: @deggans
Think you have a tough job? Consider the story of 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 Extreme Makeover (both 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 genre of television Pozner contends suppresses analytical thought, encourages consumerism and manipulates reality to reinforce some of society's worst stereotypes.
"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, founder and executive director of the advocacy group Women in Media & News.
With chapter names such as "Resisting Project Brainwash" and "Erasing Ethnicity, Encoding Bigotry," Pozner dissects the techniques and images used to build story lines and engage viewers on most so-called reality shows. Her verdict: Heavy editing and manipulation by producers creates a program as artificial as any scripted show.
She also agrees with my biggest criticism of reality TV: Producers are almost never shown or referred to on camera, so the programs never acknowledge their influence on events. It's a central dishonesty that leaves viewers unable to fully trust anything they see.
After interviewing Pozner and skimming her book, I devised the Five Biggest Lies of Reality TV, based on her observations.
REALITY TV SHOWS DON'T HAVE A SOCIAL MESSAGE
Producers often shrug off the social impact of their shows, saying they are entertainers. 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?"
REALITY TV SHOWS LIBERATE PEOPLE FROM STEREOTYPES AND BIGOTRY
In separate chapters, Pozner outlines destructive 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 an ex-drug addict with seven kids).
She says such programs often reinforce damaging stereotypes about women and people of color to create drama and humor.
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. Pozner also notes 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."
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.
One technique, called Frankenbiting, involves stitching together bits of conversations gathered over time — sometimes days apart — to create scenes which may be partly or completely fabricated.
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 to watch with your brain engaged."
FLAVOR OF LOVE
DANCING WITH THE STARS
AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL