UPDATE: This segment has been canceled–specifically because of this blog post. I may still participate in the TLC podcast and/or blogs in some other capacity, and will discuss in a blog post to come.
Am I being Punked? Perhaps. But at 10:20 EST, I’ll be a guest on TLC’s TalkBack Live podcast to follow tonight’s new episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the new reality show starring — and executive produced by — the 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee, former half-term Gov. of Alaska, and Fox News contributor. In the episode, the Palin family and the Gosselin family (Kate Gosselin and her “plus eight” kids, stars of another flagship TLC series) will go camping together in Alaska.
I’m not sure TLC understands who they’re getting as a guest. I didn’t try to hide it: “You know I’m a media critic, and not a cheerleader for reality TV, right?” “Yeah. That’s ok,” the booker said. “You know I just wrote a book called Reality Bites Back, right?” “Yes. That’s not a problem.” Well, ok then…
I’m pretty sure I mentioned to the booker that I’ve livetweeted several episodes of Sarah Palin’s Alaska (or #SPAlaska, as it is known on Twitter and promoted by the network). I certainly haven’t hidden my opinion about the show. I’ve called it a series-long unpaid political advertisement, helping a potential presidential candidate brand herself in exactly the down-home, family-values-having, rugged individualist image she has always favored for herself and her family. I’ve also been extremely critical of the abject glee the show takes in depicting hunting and fishing in as violent a way as possible, complete with extended scenes of the Palins gutting bloody animals and aggressively beating fish to death with bats. Sample tweets:
I didn’t mention to the TLC booker that I thought last week’s #SPAlaska episode was akin to a snuff film for the NRA. But I did mention — since tonight’s ep will feature the Gosselin brood — that I have had serious concerns about the child endangerment and child labor complaints raised by media critics and youth advocates over the years about realty shows that allow networks to avoid the rules and protections that regulate the use of child actors in scripted television. That didn’t seem to disqualify me from the guest roster, either, a pleasant surprise. Now, let’s see if I’m actually given the chance to raise any of these concerns.
TLC’s press releases pitch Sarah Palin’s Alaska as a “documentary” series, and that’s how the booker framed it in her conversation with me. “I don’t want to call Sarah Palin’s Alaska a reality show,” she told me. Instead, she prefers to call it “an escalation” of the genre. I replied that while I absolutely consider #SPAlaska a reality show, I agreed that it was an escalation in the sense of being the first show to allow a politician to use the unscripted television format to craft their image and get their message out in a way that flouts advertising and campaign spending regulations (since a “show” isn’t considered a political ad).
TLC’s press releases calling #SPAlaska a “documentary series” is just a cynical bit of spin aimed at convincing a nation weary of reality TV manipulations that this show is somehow more “honest observer” than “reality sidehow.” In truth, Mark Burnett Productions (Survivor, The Apprentice) partnered with Sarah Palin to create as carefully crafted a reality series as any we’ve seen in the last ten years. With her exec producer status, it is probably safe to assume that not one moment of #SPAlaska went unvetted by the former (and likely future) candidate. Within the first few episodes, we’ve seen Palin do Fox News interviews, we’ve watched her frame journalists as stalkers hell-bent on destroying her family, and we’ve heard her drop the same political catchphrases she used when she stumped for GOP candidates in the midterm elections (“Mama Grizzly”; “Don’t retreat, just reload”) in “casual” conversation with her family, all of which solidify her political brand. As such, Sarah Palin’s Alaska does what most reality shows do: carefully edits and manipulates footage, sets up scenarios and marshals quotes to construct a narrative that suits producers’ commercial and ideological goals. If you’re interested in behind-the-scenes information about how reality producers achieve these goals, I discuss this at length in Reality Bites Back.
I’m really looking forward to engaging — respectfully, is my plan — with these topics on TLC’s TalkBack Live podcast tonight at 10:20pm EST. As usual, there’s no way for me to know what questions the host will ask or whether I’ll be allowed the space to actually raise my concerns. This is a network-sponsored PR podcast, after all. But I’ll do my best for you, folks. At the very least, this should be interesting! Per TLC:
Hope you’ll tune in, and leave comments here (and at TLC’s site, since it’s likely that Palin’s fan may be… less than receptive to my critique).
4 Responses to “Reality Bites Back at…Sarah Palin’s Alaska, TONIGHT, 10:20pm EST”
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