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Why Jon & Kate Won’t Go Away

I’ve posted the lead commentary in The New York Times Room for Debate op-ed blog on reality TV this morning. As I said in the piece, we watch reality television because we like to take the rich and famous down a peg, but also because we experience that sense of relief that, as bad as our lives are, at least we’re not THAT bad.

I called it the “Can you imagine?” factor — and reality shows are full of those awkward moments viewers love to hate.

From The Bachelor and it’s many, many spin-offs, to family dramas like Little People and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, there’s something for everyone to complain about. Perhaps reality TV can be best divided into the shows that encourage competition – Top Chef, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway and the like – and shows that encourage B-list celebrity voyeurism – including The Hills, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. But is this leading us astray? Do viewers watch reality shows and say, well, hey, if they are doing, so can I?

No: Reality television neither encourages poor behavior nor serves as a cautionary tale because viewers are watching for entertainment, not as a model for “real” life. Since MTV first aired The Real World in 1992, hundreds of shows have freeze-framed on life’s tense moments as producers cut and craft for maximum effect, and viewers know it.

Perhaps what’s most tragic of all is that when the cameras stop rolling, it actually IS someone’s real life – a life that must go on and deal with the damage wrought by the quest for 15-minutes (or 100+ episodes) of fame. Not to be clichéd here, but what’s going to happen to the eight Gosselin children? The impact of their parents divorce—not to mention the odd childhood with cameras rolling 24/7—may have significant emotional and spiritual consequences.

Still, it’s entertainment – and we, the viewers, egg it all on. One of my colleagues at The University of Iowa said she watches reality television because, after that feeling of embarrassment for the “stars,” she doesn’t feel so bad about her own life “when real-person peers are making bigger farts of themselves—and on the national stage. I’m willing to grant these folks fame by tuning into their shows, but in return I get to judge them mercilessly and watch them humiliate themselves, or be humiliated by the show and editors.”

For more analysis, check out The New York Times blog.

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June 26, 2009 - Posted by | A Day in the Life, Academic Musings, Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to True Love, Self-Help | , , , , , , ,

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