Growing up, television was a constant source of entertainment—and sometimes education—for my growing mind. I cherished the great shows on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and Animal Planet that taught me and kids everywhere much about science, history and the natural world. This was learning, but somehow, it was fun too. It was entertainment made meaningful. However, switch over to any of these stations today and you won’t find anything worth learning.
Right now as I flip through these channels, I see a bizarre lineup of programming that has little or nothing to do with the original concept of said channel. On Discovery, a reality show is on called Street Outlaws. This show is about a bunch of inner-city white dudes working on street racing cars. On History, I see Pawn Stars, a show with some historical content, but mostly badly scripted footage of the pawn shop’s proprietors getting into all sorts of shenanigans (Dag gummit Chum Lee!).
In desperation, I switch over to Animal Planet. There must surely be some sort of animal themed show on. At least an animal themed hack at a reality show, yes? Nope. In fact, a show called The Haunting was airing. Sadly, this is not a show about ghostly animal specters. It is merely your run of the mill “film a dark room and act really scared” paranormal reality show. What caused these channels that once had real, educational content, to start showing ridiculous crap like Ice Road Truckers and Eaten Alive? The culprit here is the scripted and dramatized trash commonly known as reality TV.
Let us examine the brief history of “reality” programming. What started on MTV with Big Brother and The Real World, quickly spread to other channels. Celebrity shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians became wildly popular, offering talentless starlets the chance to get on TV to show off their disgustingly plump asses to millions of viewers. Talent competitions like American Idol, celebrity competitions like The Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars soon followed. Before anyone knew it, reality TV had insidiously crept its way into every channel on the lineup.
One of the worst offenders, in my opinion, is the ironically named TLC. While TLC never really taught anything to the bored housewives who populate the shows viewership, it has recently become nothing more than a freak show and lampoon of people with made-up disorders and addictions trying to get screen time. The Learning Channel teaches us that little people are fun and entertaining, that you can become addicted to eating toilet paper and that even ugly girls can look pretty when you slather enough overpriced make up on their reluctant visages.
What of the other channels that promised us education through entertainment? Sadly, the once fine programming of Discovery, History, National Geographic and most other channels has resorted to showing the same reality junk, indistinguishable from other stations. Whether portraying rural Americans trudging through a swamp (Swamp People, Swamp Pawn, Swamp Loggers) or badly scripted shows about sweaty old guys in denim vests working on classic cars (Counting Cars, Fast n’ Loud, Rods n’ Wheels, Misfit Garage, Fat n’ Furious) or even shows about people who live in Alaska doing, well… anything, (Alaska Off-Road Warriors, Buying Alaska, Edge of Alaska, Alaska: the Last Frontier, Yukon Men) these channels have resorted to showing cheaply made and meaningless content.
What makes reality TV so popular with these channels? Well for one, it is very inexpensive to produce. Why spend time trying to film wild animals when you can just show some fat old guys arguing about the price of an antique clapping monkey? They are also, for reasons unknown, wildly popular. These shows are a dime a dozen, made very quickly, heavily edited and follow ridiculous trends i.e. gypsies (Gypsy Sisters, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, American Gypsies). Ultimately, these shows gain popularity because with such low standards and low-brow content, they cater to the lowest common denominator of American.
Quite possibly the greatest farce regarding reality TV is that none of these shows are actually “reality.” Almost every one of these shows is scripted poorly and heavily cut together in post editing. They use the bits and pieces of crap footage to splice together a mediocre storyline that appears real, and people eat it up. These shows, especially ones targeted toward women and girls, (Say Yes to the Dress, The Bachelor, Dance Moms, Real Housewives), create a fake and highly engineered world that resembles real life, and shove it down the throats of impressionable people. What is seen on The Bachelor is not love, merely a revolting orgy of melodrama and self-promotion (and orgies).
Shows like What Not to Wear care little about improving the lives of participants, rather they seek to equate beauty and happiness with buying more make-up and clothing. The false worlds portrayed in these despicable plays beg the question, does (filth) art imitate life or does life imitate art? Are we humans really as depraved and disgusting as the people portrayed on The Jersey Shore?
Despite the brainless takeover of primetime programming, there is yet hope. Broadcast mediums like Netflix and HBO offer programming with substance, and are growing in popularity. Shows like House of Cards and Game of Thrones are well written and high-brow content. As an American deeply concerned with the state of this country’s culture, I can only hope that more people begin to ditch the crap-load of cable TV in favor of programing that doesn’t feature made up drama and c-list celebrities begging for screen time, but instead, real and meaningful content.
by NICK FARRELL / contributing writer