I think the love-hate is fundamental. Everyone hates reality television, and everyone’s watching it.
Did you watch any reality TV this week? Whether drag queens on a catwalk, crab fishermen in a storm or brides choosing a wedding dress, these programmes are everywhere. They feature “real” people and film their reactions in varying situations.
In the UK there’s even a reality programme showing people at home reacting to TV shows, which is either very, very meta or imaginatively bankrupt. Not only is it popular, but more than one of the featured participants has gone on to (short-lived) solo TV careers.
Harmless fun and entertainment, right? But these programmes can be anything but. Reality TV can harm your health whether you’re on screen or in front of it.
In pursuit of viewers, participants are manipulated and stressed to exaggerate their responses.
Further manipulation takes place in editing so that the finished product bears little relation to the events as they happened.
My friend was featured on a house renovation show. She and her family were split up, kept waiting in different rooms, and denied opportunities for rest. There was no escaping the cameras.
Her partner was encouraged to have a beer in the garden at the end of a very long day, and the programme presented him as a disinterested drinker. Neither found the experience a positive one overall.
But you’ve had a hard day and you deserve some downtime. Why overthink things?
Watching The Box
I’m capable of living in the moment. And I’m especially capable of living in the moment of sitting on my sofa and watching other people’s moments.
We’re watching a lot of TV. The 2017 US average TV viewing time figures show Americans watch 7 hours 50 minutes per day, while the 2018 UK average was 22 hours per week. These figures don’t include streaming and social media use.
Watching TV is a passive activity that gives the illusion of participation.
Programmes showing rugged men diving for gold or surviving inhospitable terrain cater to particular views of masculinity. Programmes showing sexy twenty-somethings in skimpy clothing cater to particular views of femininity and relationships.
When the camera zeroes in on faces to show every micro-expression, you’re invited to feel the same emotions. When the tough guy swims across an icy lake and builds a shelter out of pine branches, you’re invited to feel that you too are braving the elements in a primal struggle for survival. Mirror neurons fire in your brain to make you feel as if you were there.
But you’re sitting on your couch, warm and safe, with snacks to hand. You’re not there and the supposed experience is an illusion.
The show-runners respond to our inevitable habituation by turning up the pressure; less time, bigger challenges, more remote islands, surprise evictions.
It’s the modern version of bread and circuses, in which the audience is promised ever more dangerous animals for the gladiators to face. The blood on the floor is all part of the show.
What happens to those reality gladiators and us, their audience, afterwards?
Fifteen Minutes and After
You will soon break the bow if you keep it always stretched.
Norman Vincent Peale
Contestants can struggle after the camera moves on. The unrelenting pressure to perform and keep strong emotions near the surface can amount to abuse, hazardous to even the strongest personality.
We don’t often hear about the dark side of reality TV. Suicide of a cast member becomes fodder for the mill because “any publicity is good publicity.” Some argue that abusive relationships are being normalised by shows that present a human being as a prize to be contested and claimed, leaving the others as failures.
For you as a viewer, artificially evoked empathy for the unsuccessful contestant is fleeting and dulls your true responses. When we dismiss on-screen emotion as fake, our cynicism can spill over into real life.
At its worst, observation culture hurts all of us. We watch, we are numbed by over-exposure, and we are caught in the illusion of participation.
At its best, observation culture can enrich your life. You just need to approach it differently.
Watch and Learn
Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.
There’s nothing wrong with watching reality TV or any other shows. As in so much of life, moderation is key. Sometimes you really need to relax and let your mind drift.
The less challenge and hazard we face in modern life, the more we’re spoon-fed distant dangers to compensate. But watching someone else climb a mountain can’t build your muscles, and you can’t eat that delicious meal on the screen.
Don’t fall for the magic trick which confuses observing with doing. Use your favourite show as inspiration for actual activity in the real world. Get off the couch and try it.
If you like cookery shows, try new recipes. Maybe you can’t cook a gourmet meal yet, but you could enjoy a new recipe or make your own bread.
If you watch survival, go hiking. You don’t have to fight off a bear or eat bugs to enjoy the fresh air and stretch your legs.
If you watch shows that hook you with strongly expressed emotion, remember those emotions are often the result of being stressed and cornered and filmed in HD for hours on end. People are more than characters in a soap opera; and actual soaps, movies and books exist to fill your need for empathywithout pushing real people to their limits and beyond.
Plan a trip somewhere you’ve never been. My trips to Lapland and Iceland were inspired by snowy Swedish landscapes in a programme featuring Ray Mears, a noted British survival expert. It sparked something in my heart I couldn’t forget. Because of that show, I drove a snowmobile, visited the original Ice Hotel, and experienced a blizzard on a glacier. And my children have never forgotten the thrill of husky sledding.
Now when I see these countries on TV, I recall wonderful memories. I was there; I know what the cold is like, and that makes me appreciate my central heating and plush sofa all the more.
Part of the reason watching TV is ultimately hollow is because you don’t participate. Your body knows the difference between muscle relaxation after actual activity and slumped tension after hours on the sofa.
Your favourite reality show can be more than entertainment; it can signpost a way out of boredom and disengagement. The things you yearn to do and the places you want to see are often right in front of you, disguised as passive entertainment choices.
As Halliday said in Ready Player One, people need to spend time in the real world because reality is the only thing that’s real.
By all means, rest in front of the box. Learn something new. But after that, go find a way to experience life.
To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.