How Reality TV—And Its Criticism—Falls Flat
Elimination-fueled competitions and make-over shows complete with product placement are everywhere these days. It seems reality television, sometimes called "unscripted" programming, is here to stay. The genre is redefining the way we interact with, understand, and socialize with our fellow Americans. It's not here for your approval and, to use a cliché commonly associated with the genre, it’s not here to make friends.
Part of the reason for the resurgence in reality television is that it's the cheapest way to fill programming blocks. While we see much more of it today, reality TV is nothing new. It's been around since Candid Camera, which documented sneaky practical jokes on unsuspecting average joes, debuted in 1948. But things have changed since then. The genre hit its second stride in 2000 with Survivor, an elimination show in which “castaways” compete to win big by roughing it for the longest, and since then the genre has presented increasingly regressive caricatures of women, men, poor people, and people of color.
In Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV, media critic and activist Jennifer Pozner takes on the much-maligned staple of cable and broadcast television that occupied up to 41 percent of Fox’s overall programming in 2009. From Flavor of Love host Flavor Flav to America's Next Top Model's tyrannical Tyra Banks, Reality Bites Back provides an exacting, well-organized overview of a medium that is problematic at best. Pozner eviscerates network head honchos, lambasts manipulative editing practices, and skewers the advertising-over-social impact ethos that drives contemporary reality programming.
Reality Bites Back is a significant book, but like television itself, it occasionally falls flat. I would have appreciated a chapter solely focused on the role that media policy and regulation plays in the development of quality content early in the book. Media policy experts often note that deregulation, consolidation, and a lack of government support for programming in the public interest are precisely what created the evolutionary cesspool that shows like The Bachelor, an elimination program in which one man picks his true love from a set of desperate single women, slithered out of. Beyond a few brief mentions of programs such as The Amazing Race, a show that pits teams of two against each other in a race around the globe, as a model for better programming, Pozner also doesn’t address what quality programming looks like.
I would argue that PBS’s historical reality programming like 1900 House, which features a modern family trying to spend three months living like a family from the Victorian era, is one example of a model for what the genre can do right.
Modern minstrels, deadly prince charmings
(© FilmMagic / VH1)
But Pozner does many things well in Reality Bites Back. As she mentions several times in the text, Pozner watched well over 1,000 hours of reality programming while researching Reality Bites Back. Her hours of trainwreck-watching pay off in chapters that address racial stereotypes and violence against women in reality television. She also tracks down some chilling evidence of the complicity of networks and producers in promoting the aforementioned dangerous situations.
Pozner meticulously charts out almost absolute lack of standards the reality star casting process—background checks are compulsory skims rather than in-depth investigations. She startlingly uncovers multiple instances in which fill-in-the-blank Prince Charming contestants from popular match-making programs like Who wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? andBlind Date that have histories of violence. Some of these potential Prince Charmings were even convicted of assault before getting cast as the dream date.
The most shocking case Pozner reveals circles around Ryan Jenkins, a two-time participant in VH1 shows, who was hired despite a history of assault charges. Jenkins appeared on Megan Wants a Millionaire, a show in which 17 rich men competed for the affections of reality TV personality Megan Hauserman,and I Love Money, a meta show in which former reality stars compete for money by performing feats of mental and physical endurance. Pozner writes:
…Three days after Jenkins picked up his check for appearing on I Love Money, a previously filmed 51 Minds show, [Jenkins’ wife’s] body was found mutilated and stuffed in a suitcase. Her fingers and teeth were yanked out; she could only be identified by the serial numbers on her breast implants. Jenkins was charged with [his wife’s] murder; he killed himself before he could be convicted. The network blamed ‘clerical errors’ for their failure to uncover his criminal history not just once, but twice.
Pozner’s extensive detailing of regressive stereotyping in reality programming is also top notch, particularly as it pertains to people of color on shows like Flavor of Love and Real Housewives of Atlanta, a purported docu-drama featuring a set of wealthy women in Atlanta. Pozner diligently connects the dots and between caricatures that originated in minstrel shows, such as Stepin Fetchit and Mammy, to modern representations of people of color in reality programming.
For example, in Flavor of Love, a dating show in which women compete for the affections of Flavor Flav (of Public Enemy fame), female contestants are given nicknames that represent their nipples, butts, and busts. Flav himself plays a clownish character of exaggerated appetites and sound bites.
Pozner charts the path between then and now, writing:
In minstrelsy, … Black men were depicted as stupid and lazy, while Black women were hypersexual provocateurs or subservient caretakers. Biracial women were particularly eroticized as titillating and wanton. This minstrel legacy echoed throughout Flavor of Love’s three seasons and its many spinoffs.
It’s also worth mentioning Pozner’s compelling arguments regarding the impact of reality programming on teenagers, and how the genre seems to stride backwards from any progress in civil rights whatsoever. Take the representation of women in most reality programming:
… American women have made great strides over the last decade in every professional field. Yet in the world of reality TV, women are not concerned with politics, law, athletics, activism, or even careers in general (unless they’re competing for the supermodel/starlet/rock star jobs that populate ten-year-olds’ daydreams). Instead, reality TV producers, casting directors, and story editors have collaborated to paint American women as romantically desperate, matrimonially obsessed, and hypertraditionalist in their views about the proper role for wives and mothers, husbands and fathers.
But what do reality TV insiders have to say?
As is the nature of the beast—having watched all of that television—most of Reality Bites Back draws from secondary sources. Pozner summarizes and excerpts from programming, studies, blogs and outside articles frequently and with aplomb.
But she could have livened up her extensive secondary research with first-person interviews. Reality Bites Backwould have benefited greatly from the voices of the people that participate in the industry. If Pozner included actual interviews with reality show contestants, or former producers, this book would be unstoppable.
One of Pozner's main criticisms in the book is of the practice of selective “Frankenbiting” to edit situations and conversations by show editors to subtly change the viewer’s perception of events and individual characters. But lack of first-person interactions with industry insiders constitutes a milder form of editorial Frankenbiting within Reality Bites Back, especially when it relates to a medium that is remixed and mashed up across the Internet. Her arguments would have been much stronger with direct input from the minds behind the series themselves—be they contestants or producers.
A standout exception to this complaint is an e-correspondence between Pozner and Brian Gadinsky, executive producer of Fox’s Anchorwoman, a series about former model Lauren Jones’ aspirations to be an anchor for a Texas news station, and an executive producer on several seasons of American Idol.
Pozner includes an email from Gadinsky that defends the feminist nature of Anchorwoman verbatim, sics and all.
my mother, who passed away in 2000, was one floridas pioneer feminists and she served in the fla legislature for 22 years as a champion for abused women, women who wanted choice over their own bodies, women who were underpaid in the workplace, woman who wanted the ERA in the constitution, etc etc etc. . . . she was the first inductee into the florida womens hall of fame!!! and so i was raised by her! i will never forget campaiging in 1972 for shirley chisholm for president!! so for my creation to be slammed by a feminist organization certainly got my attention!
Pozner retaliated by writing:
I wonder what Gadinsky’s mom and her fellow Florida Women’s Hall of Famers would have said if they saw Fox’s promo materials portraying Lauren Jones as an unintelligent hottie who doesn’t deserve her job.
Anchorwoman was canceled after airing only one episode.
How to reform reality television
But even though Pozner's scathing criticism rings true, an in-depth exploration of how progressive media policy could shape future television content would be quite valuable. While Pozner mentions the Telecommunications Act that President Bill Clinton passed in 1996, the book is missing a well-organized, centralized discussion regarding what kinds of media policy could curb sexist, racist, and violent programming. As is, there are a selection of essays near the the end of the book, and Pozner does touch on some of these topics throughout several chapters, but the effect is a little jumbled.
Media policy and reform are certainly less sexy than reality television. It's also not easy to write about policy in a way that’s accessible to beginners. But a well-organized conversation about media policy—or even policy that’s missing—is integral to communicating the level of social impact that television programming has on communities.
Corie Wright, policy counsel for media reform group Free Press, talks about the impact of policy on programming and how deregulation leads to lower quality. Wright says the advent of reality television has been long-coming, and relates directly to media consolidation.
"Over the last 30 years media had consistently been deregulated… Larger and larger corporations are taking control of what used to be locally based systems,” Wright says. “There used to be 'a strong democracy anchor' in the system, and the expectation was that larger corporations would air local news, local programming, and keep communities in the know."
But as local went global—as the number of locally-owned stations that broadcast locally-produced programs were gobbled up by media conglomerates with little interest in—social impact became less of a concern compared to profits.
“When companies focus more on profit margins than local focus, they err towards programming that is easy to produce and garners a larger audience,” Wright says. “You see more and more things like sex, back-biting, and violence.”
In short, broadcast television used to be locally based and contained programming that was relevant to communities. This is no longer the case, with the exception of PBS. So, if PBS is in the public interest and produces quality programming like the aforementioned 1900 House, why doesn’t it have a bigger impact? According to Wright, it’s all about the politics.
“Public broadcasters have to… scramble for the cash they need to make that programming," she says. "The funding allotted to public media is a constant debate in congress between those who want to preserve it and those who want to cut back. PBS is chronically underfunded and that’s a major obstacle they confront on regular basis.”
Get off your behind and do something already!
Citizens need to make their voices heard in order to combat harmful programming. And thankfully Reality Bites Back does include a smart set of activities and actions that educated viewers can embark upon to increase the quality of reality programming. Because, let’s face it. None of us wants Project Runwayand its fabulous fashions to disappear—we just want it to be better, and to have a better social impact.
Erin Polgreen is the associate director of the Media Consortium and she loves bad TV. Follow her on Twitter @erinpolgreen.
This text has been edited from the original.