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The High Cost of Low Cost TV
May 19, 2015  | By Candace Kelley  | 1 comment

Somewhere tonight two “Oh no she didn’ts,” a finger snap, two nose jobs and some sound effects are making another appearance on reality TV. But how could this be? In late March, AOL held a mock funeral for “fake reality television” in Times Square (above) with several popular reality stars including Omarosa and Jon Gosselin. It was a stunt to promote AOL’s reality series Connected, but the symbolism made perfect sense.

Sure, the cost of making a reality show is cheaper to make at about $200,000 for a half-hour episode, compared with the $1 million or more for a typical hour-long scripted show. But there are some very high costs besides the fact that women are often depicted as just plain catty. The confluence of these shows creates a narrow-minded, cultural collective that people are leaning into way too hard.

Fans attached to these shows get just a small dose of people from cross sections of humanity. In fact, many popular reality shows (not all) that we see are constructed to make caricatures out of already existing stereotypes. Most viewers of these shows will never interact personally with the likes of those at the Duck Commander, the Amish who grace the screen or the young Black women on VH1’s cancelled show Sorority Sisters (right), a show that was snatched off of VH1 after women around the world displayed their disgust in droves. The protesters were attacking not just the show, but also the fact that millions of people, including future thought leaders, are nursing on these shows and growing up with very myopic views of the world and the people who live in it.

In the 1998 movie The Truman Show, Executive Producer of the on-screen reality show, Christof, played by Ed Harris (left), tells his team “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”  It’s an observation worth noting in the long run because the “writing” on some of these shows appeals particularly to young girls and boys who may only have television as their outlet to the world. Each edit gloats by pitting women against each other at a time when bullying has every school system under siege. Meanwhile, many of these shows reward aggressive behavior that amounts to a socially stale construct that dates back to the roaring ’50s. A Pandora’s time capsule filled with a collection of housewives and notes from the pre-civil rights era. An era by the way, that I learned was actually not all that bad for Blacks after all, according to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. But, you know, he’s a bit of a strange fruit.

The high cost of these shows casts a shadow on our already limited social interaction outlined in books like Marc J. Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbour and Susan Pinker’s The Village Effect. Their research buttressed what most of us already sensed. We just don’t get to know people outside of our comfort zone and, even if they are next door, it’s a stretch for some fifty percent of us to choose our neighbor from a lineup.

Before Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson (right) exited left, I had never been so up close and personal with someone with her unique precocious grace and charm. In an instant, she became the poster child of Hicktown, USA with all the “sketti” trimmings. Unfortunately, reality show enthusiasts see her as a representative for McIntyre, Georgia and people who look and speak like her. The reality of reality TV shows forces us to keep up our guards and form opinions about slices of life. Those images and perceptions then become part of a belief system in which people tend to self-segregate based on looks, class, race, and socioeconomic prowess.

In spite of the popularity of reality shows, for as many successful shows out there, there are plenty of failures. The outrage the public has shown to either take shows off the air, or prevent them from debuting at all, could be an indicator that the most outlandish reality series will reach a tipping point. Much like anything else, people will more than likely tire of the redundancy. (In fact, according to recent Nielsen reports, the demographic of 18-49 is interested in more scripted shows.) This is not to say there isn’t room for this genre. What it means is that audiences and their collective conscious have to force producers and writers to strike a balance to shape what’s on TV by protesting what is on. It’s the fundamental right of viewers to do so that too many people relinquish as they wonder in amazement: how and why is this show still on?

Candace Kelley is an Emmy-nominated TV producer, writer, and reporter, holds a law degree and, equally important, is a producer in the world of reality television. Over her years as a freelance writer, she has covered media and the law, pop culture, the arts, and minority-related issues. As if that's not enough, Candace also teaches TV reporting and media law at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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The thing that distresses and depresses me most about these "reality" shows is the near-total absence of grace or nobility in the characters. Even the darkest dramatic series -- The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and the like -- are far more likely to have grace notes and glimpses of a human soul.
May 20, 2015   |  Reply
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