I Know Why the Reality Show Reigns

The Pop Culture Percolator

For the past eight years or so I’ve been trying to figure out the root of this awful dry heaving I get when I flip channels. Though I’ve never had a doctor confirm the source, I’m pretty sure the heaves are caused by Every Reality Show Ever (including Game & Competition Shows With Outrageous Has-Been Hosts). You can forget WebMD, because this is a socio-medical breakthrough.

Now, I know why reality shows exist. Even as the interactions become increasingly scripted (or interactions increasingly manipulated, or whatever buzz-phrase you want to use), the cheap production values and cheap actors keep the budget low. The Writers Guild of America’s strike (hey, remember that?) illustrated how easily the networks could fast-track a billion (slight exaggeration) of these shows to fill the airwaves during those awful, awful months.

Let’s ask the major question, though: why do people watch them? Why, for example, do viewers prefer the boring politics and nonsensical challenges of Survivor when the scripted, brilliantly acted and produced Lost has a similar premise but an actual story? Characters are developed, stories are unveiled (albeit slowly), and characters don’t mope (at least not directly to the camera).

Why are people so interested in the “real” trials and tribulations of California teens on Laguna Beach, while letting the scripted trials and tribulations and bagels of The OC die a low-rated death?

A recent entertainment article revealed the surprising/frightening truth that Fox was the number one broadcast station (thanks, American Idol) while also boasting the fewest hours of scripted programming per week.

In fact, Fox doesn’t even schedule programming in the 10-11 pm hour, opting instead to wow Southwest Floridians with Patrick Nolan’s epic hair on the local news. It’s only a matter of time before the other broadcast networks cut expensive scripted programming and give us Politically-Correct Puppy Love with Dog the Bounty Hunter.

Okay. We know why the networks do it. But why does the average television viewer prefer the Average Person Who Is Certainly Not An Actor moping around a house vying for the love of a Vietnamese bisexual when they could instead watch the ultimate unrequited love story of Pushing Daisies?

We all want to be a star. And what’s the easiest way to feel like a star? Watch people who are “Exactly Like Us.” It’s the same reason we (possibly excluding me, possibly not) enjoy rags like Us Weekly and websites like Gawker. We want to see celebrities at their worst so we can feel closer to their status. But instead of watching a bunch of Nietzsche Supermen duke it out on Lost, we prefer Ashley the Waitress mudslinging (literally and figuratively) with Richard the Gas Station Attendant on Survivor. Apparently, we can relate to their problems, marooned on an island and in need of one million dollars. Or, at least the latter.

Perhaps it’s more sociological than that, though. After all, what do you think you are more likely to talk about with co-workers or friends: the outrageous singer with outrageous hair who makes girls cry on American Idol or Zeljko Ivanek’s chances of earning a Best Supporting Actor Emmy nomination this year for his work on Damages? Unless your co-worker or friend is me, you’re going to talk about the former. And how can you stay informed unless you read the gossip sites and watch these shows and feel like a part of “reality” that Hollywood constructs for us?

To be perfectly honest, I spent Monday nights last semester with ten friends and roommates watching A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. It requires no backstory, only the implied fact that Tila Tequila is a complete idiot. And a bisexual. And looking for love (unless she wants more money, at which point she will look for a different love). Yes, we were watching it ironically, making snide comments wherever applicable (that is to say everywhere). But it provided the opportunity for all of us to bond over a shared experience.

Maybe that’s exactly what we want: the shared experience that television sought to bring us from the very beginning. Maybe these reality/competition shows transcend this basic understanding of television audience. Frighteningly, maybe they do bring us closer to a united country, sharing experiences that we can all understand, seriously or ironically. Maybe I’ll give these reality shows and gossip sites and The Hills the benefit of the doubt. Maybe network executives are the greatest geniuses of our time. In that case, bring on the Dry Heaves for a More United America.

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