Quick hit: Tonight, to mark the premiere of the 25th season of The Real World, I’ll be on the CBC News show Connect with Mark Kelley to discuss how reality TV has morphed from one iconic (yet fringe) MTV show about strangers living together in 1992, to the landscape-altering genre it became once it traveled to network television in 2000.
Connect with Mark Kelley airs live from 8 – 9pm EST; I’m told that my segment will air at 8:45pm. Tune in live, or watch it online at http://www.cbc.ca/connect/
(And for those of you who care about such things… why, yes, that will be a big box of tissues right outside the camera’s frame! I’m
battling a nasty cold right now. Just consider me your puffy-eyed, red-nosed media analyst, at your service!)
I hope to be able to address some of the following, from the introduction to Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV (all footnotes available in the book; bracketed descriptions and names provided here for context):
The Real World’s devolution clearly illustrates the spill-over effect on content across the TV dial. First broadcast in 1992, the show originally featured diverse casts and explored issues such as racism, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and abortion with something resembling care. Discussions addressing these identities and issues often illuminated rather than reinforced prejudice. During the 2000s, the series used sensationalized sexism, racial prejudice, homophobia, sloppy hookups, and drug and alcohol addiction as the main viewership draws. As cultural critic Latoya Peterson writes, “Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas” used to be major components of The Real World, which now seems to “specifically cast for racists, assholes, and agitators . . . it’s like a formula. Every season has some huge racial altercation. Every season has some kind of woman trying to sleep her way into self-esteem. Every season has a guy coping with a breakup angrily.”
Why the shift? For one thing, TV execs believe that the more they bait advocacy groups like NOW, the NAACP, and GLAAD, the more controversy a show will
generate. Offensiveness = hype = increased eyeballs for advertisers and cash for networks, making outrageous bigotry less a by-product of reality TV than its blueprint. Let [The Bachelor executive producer and former Who Wants to Marry a MultiMillionaire producer Mike] Fleiss explain: The first thing he and [MultiMillionaire programming partner and Fox exec Mike] Darnell thought when they heard about [MultiMillionaire star and former domestic violence perp Rick] Rockwell’s violent past was, “Great! More publicity! Mike said, ‘We gotta get out in front of this!’ I’m like, ‘Absolutely! Fuck! It’s a restraining order! Let’s get an interview with the girl! We’ll put it on as part of the special!’ We had a whole plan, because that’s the way we like it!” Hindsight makes most people wiser. Fleiss . . . not so much. Three years after the fact, he told a reporter that “In retrospect, I don’t feel like we did anything wrong on that Multi-Millionaire show, when you see that, hey, on Married by America they had somebody who was already married . . . we were just there first.” The next time you see The Bachelor passing out the long-stems, consider that the producer of reality TV’s longest-running “fairytale romance” franchise sees no difference between wedding a woman to a violent stranger and the fact that “one of the final girls had like done fetish films” [sic] on Joe Millionaire.
Tune in live on the CBC, or watch it online at http://www.cbc.ca/connect/