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Commentary: Reality TV doesn't live up to its name

9/22/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This commentary may be used with story #447. A head-and-shoulders photograph of Ray Waddle is available.

A Commentary By Ray Waddle*

I was watching "Who Wants to Marry My Dad" the other night, which is different from "Boy Meets Boy," which is not the same thing as "Fear Factor."

But it's all reality TV, and it all makes me think Christian theology is alive and well.

Reality TV is, at the moment, society's hottest showcase for the seven deadly sins. If you have a sudden need for footage of the fall of humanity, it's all there - greed, lust, envy, anger, pride, gluttony and sloth, conveniently slotted in prime time.

I've watched several reality shows lately (though not all of them - that would be unreal). The same emotions keep welling up inside - fascination, titillation, disbelief and boredom. I'll add another one: embarrassment, an awkward feeling of embarrassment for the individuals humiliated on these shows - the guy who gets rejected, the woman who is deceived.

Never underestimate embarrassment. It's the secret engine of reality TV's guilty-pleasure success: It drives the vicarious thrill of momentarily putting yourself in the place of the hapless bachelor competitor or the "Survivor" underdog, before pulling safely back again. Reality TV allows us to taste some foolhardy reality we'd never try ourselves (eating bugs) or foolhardy reality we've known too well (disaster dates).

Another sort of embarrassment is at work too, no doubt: a vague feeling of shame or guilt about watching it at all. So why not denounce "The Bachelor" and all the rest of it? Well, what would that prove? Condemning reality TV pretty much disqualifies a person from trying to understand its appeal, its clues about contemporary life and spirituality too. Besides, some of it's fun to watch.

For better or worse, reality TV is a reaction to a real world where just about everything looks overpackaged, overnighted, oversold, frantically marketed, screened, simulated, faked or forgotten. Reality TV presumably delivers, for once, raw unfiltered emotions from real people. Reality TV is a backlash against workplace regimentations and bland consensus. It seems to offer what official public life denies - emotional honesty.

Reality TV also plays on the mesmerizing daydream of getting rich quick and winning the $1 million. We're a casino culture, a nation of lotto ticket sales and anti-tax bumper stickers. Watching those regular guys compete "For Love or Money" brings out that little voice that whispers, "It could have been me."

Reality TV gets in touch with a universal hunger for rituals and risk. "Survivor" and "Fear Factor" serve up feats of strength and back-to-nature stamina that are out of reach of most of us in our daily routines. The tribal language might be pompous and made-up, but it suggests people are made to face challenges and build teamwork in the great outdoors, not in cubicle space.

Reality TV also reflects a shift in TV's relationship to its audience. In the old days, TV was polite, like a guest in our homes. It was careful about its language. People on TV dressed up. But the compulsive itch to find new markets and profits pushed TV producers to test boundaries of taste and decorum. "The Newlywed Game" introduced a new element of humiliation into game shows in the late 1960s. "The Gong Show" cranked it up in the 1970s.

By the mid-1990s, pop culture was majoring in adolescent sneers and trash talk. Vulgarity had become lucrative and mainstream, a business strategy of the bottom line. Combine that attitude with two technological trends - the triumph of hand-held video equipment, and the demands of cable TV's 24-hour format, which required lots of programming - and the result was reality TV. (Surely, someday soon, a new network will emerge: the Reality Channel, complete with "Temptation Island" in reruns and reality shows about reality shows.)

Alas, of course, reality TV can't deliver reality after all. The shows are too contrived, too highly edited to be real. The non-actors self-consciously feel the heat of the stage lighting and the presence of a paid camera crew in the room. It's a game with strict rules; people sign contracts to stick to those rules. So even the tears and tender kisses can't be trusted. The cold requirements of a one-hour broadcast undercut reality.

Ministers scanning a broken world of so many needs will disdain such TV trends as a waste of time. But it would be a shame if reality TV's version of reality - the stereotyping, the false glamour - went unchallenged. Church leaders ought to spend time teaching tools of skepticism about what we see on TV, helping us demystify the media so it doesn't take up so much space in our emotional lives.

Ultimately, churches bear witness to three matters that are far more real than reality TV will ever be:
· The natural world, God's creation.
· The world of suffering.
· The Jesus of Scripture and history.

Is reality TV taking over the world? Not quite. Not as long as churches step up and fight the battle of the real world.

# # #

*Waddle, former religion editor at The Tennessean newspaper, is a writer and columnist in Nashville. He is the author of A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time, which will be published by Upper Room Books at the end of this year.

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