Thursday, June 16, 2005

Why I Think Reality Shows That Claim to Help People Are Disgusting, Reprehensible, & Just Plain Wrong

Reality programming is here to stay, least for the time being. It's now an established genre, joining the ranks of the sit-com, the drama, the news magazine, and the talk show.
I hear a lot of people moan about reality programming, how much they hate it, how it's the lowest of the low, etc. But somebody's watching. Check that--a whole ton of somebodies. American Idol regularly pulled in 30 million-plus viewers in its most recent season. That's astonishing. It was bigger than ever this year. During the current summer season, such programs as Dancing With The Stars, Beauty and the Geek, and Hit Me Baby One More Time are some of the highest rated shows on the air.


Not that I hate reality TV. I have actually enjoyed some of it. Beauty and the Geek, for instance, is not at all like I expected. It's sweet, touching, and encourages the players toward personal improvement and supporting each other. And I so want to hate Ashton Kutcher (executive producer).

I've seen several seasons of Survivor that I enjoyed.

The Amazing Race gets a lot of viewers and critical praise...and I like it.

The genre itself isn't the problem. It's the weak rip-offs, poor ideas, and bad or misleading marketing.

But there's a growing trend that I find extremely troubling, that I consider far worse than things like The Real World or Fear Factor.

The trend is reality shows that pretend or claim to help people. Here an now, I go on the record stating that these shows and the people involved in them are the most dispicable thing I've seen in years. I hate them. And now I'll tell you why.

First, let me define what I mean by "reality shows that pretend or claim to help people": Extreme Makeover Home Edition, The Biggest Loser, The Scholar, The Swan, the Nanny shows, and the upcoming Three Wishes. Each of these shows has, at the center of its premise and marketing strategy, the idea that the show is helping people who cannot do by themselves what the show can do for them. The problem is that there is either no good deed at all in actuality, or there are nefarious motives behind it.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition is the one I hate the most, but they're all bad. When I, in this post, refer to Extreme Makeover Home Edition, you can assume I am also talking about the others above I listed (and any other similar show I forgot to list). EMHE (as I will try and refer to it from here on out in an effort to avoid extra typing) rebuilds or builds from scratch homes for the poor and disadvantaged. Sounds reasonable enough, right?


Allow me to state my thesis (that these shows are evil) in three main points (hey, I'm the son of a preacher man...and three point sermons are in my blood, so sue me.):

1. Exploitation.

Watch one episode, one single episode of EMHE and you will see the exploitation. You'll see the heartbreak of the family in need. You'll see their grief over recent lost loved ones. You'll get close ups of the actual tears they cry. And that is exploitation. ABC chooses to set up their good-deed-doing by first giving you an exhaustive explanation of just how needy these poor people are, in an attempt to make the good deed seem even better than it is.

And it works. That show is pretty popular. I know a lot of people who watch it and say they cry every time.

But think about the families portrayed for a second. Their vulnerability is captured on film...on record for eternity. Their weakest moments, they're tears, their embarrassment at being poor is there for the world to see. "Look how pitiful they are, everyone!"

I saw one episode of EMHE where the needy family was seven brothers and sisters who recently lost both parents in two separate tragedies.

I saw them bawl about it. I heard them tell the camera about how hard it was to live in that house and not have their folks around anymore. It was completely shameless. "Say, this family has suffered two recent tragedies...let's put cameras in their faces when they cry!" You don't have to literally film the person's sorrow for us to know they're deserving of know that they're needy. But Schmultz sells, right?

On Biggest Loser, it's about watching the fat people get over-exercised. Some challenges put the contestants' favorite foods in front of them as "motivation." Right...and the cheese we put at the end of the rat's maze is "inspiration."

Exploitation is wrong. As Chris would say, I defy you to tell me otherwise. And don't tell me the needy people know full well they're going to be exploited. Don't tell me that for a second! They have no freaking house!! Or they have one and it's got a giant hole in the roof or a family of aligators threatening to move in. They're desperate. And desperate people might not care about exploitation when they agree to be on a show that results in THEM GETTING A HOUSE!!

2. It's not a good deed if you publicize it.

Machiavelli said this in his book, The Prince. (What? KW is quoting Machiavelli? Has the world gone bizzaro?) Now, granted, Machiavelli was basically screwy as a light bulb, and most of The Prince deals with how one can effectively overthrow the government to obtain and keep power by keeping the lowly people low. It's all about manipulation and deception. But there's a great section about good deeds, and it's the reason I bought the book (and likely subsequently appeared on FBI watch lists for suspicious book reading...I did also just get The Catcher in the Rye as well). Machiavelli states that the only truly good deed is an anonymous one.

His theory is that if you take credit for a good deed, especially if you want credit for that good deed, then there are selfish motives. You want praise or good publicity or a tax write-off. Your motives are actually for your own gain as much or more than they are for the gain of the less fortunate.

After all, you don't have to knock on the door of the old lady's house and say, "Hi, I brought you these groceries, just to be nice." You could, in theory, just set the groceries on the porch and leave. If no one ever knows it was you, there's a better chance your motives are pure. That's what Machiavelli is getting at.

And I agree with this...mostly. I think there are plenty of good deeds people do where they get credit...where they aren't anonymous, but the motives are still good. I just think the anonymous good deeds are the purest form.

Take ABC and their helpful home building show. With the money they spend on the cast and crew and host, combined with the money they spend on film and travel and cameras, combined with the money they spend on marketing and promos...just for one episode...they could build ten homes for needy people.

And I know what you're going to say: "Hey, KW, give them a break. Television is a business and they're trying to get ratings." Well, thanks for making my point for me. See, television is about money. And money comes from ratings (advertisers pay for spots during the highly watched shows).

Make no mistake, if Extreme Makeover Home Edition was not making money for ABC, it would be pulled from the air immediately. They're making a profit on this, plain and simple.
And yet they play it off like it's all about the good deeds. "It's a feel good show, man. We wanna help people." But ABC doesn't care about the needy families any more than I care about Paris Hilton's social life. They want the needy families for their ratings, which is why they exploit them by focusing on their pain and sorrow. Once the show ceases to be profitable, ABC will cease to build homes for needy people, I can guarantee it.

And that's the hipocracy that drives me insane. At least Fear Factor doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. It's a show where people eat bug milkshakes and animal testicles. Sure, that's disgusting, and I don't want to see that, but they're not pretending to be edifying people. They're not pretending they change the world.

EMHE, on the other hand, preys on needy people, harnesses their ratings-inducing pain, and targets an audience of big-hearted people too dumb to know the difference between commerce and a good deed. They play up the charity angle, and there's little or no true charity in their motives.

So ABC's "good deed" is not only not anonymous, they're shouting their own praises from the rooftops. And that makes it slimey.

It reminds me of a friend of a friend. He bought a thousand of those Lance Armstrong bracelets, then turned around and sold them for a buck-a-piece more than he spent. He made a profit off charity. He told people, "the money goes to fight cancer," but he should have tacked on the phrase, "except for the portion I pocket." It's not particularly evil, and certainly not illegal, but it's morally questionable. It's shady.

3. Not to get all Biblical on you or anything (again, product of my upbringing, but I won't apologize for being a man of faith), but my third point is about the Bible.

Remember that verse about being luke warm? It's in Revelation (not plural, by the way...stupid miniseries idiots), chapter 3, verse 16. It reads "So, because you are lukewarm�neither hot nor cold�I am about to spit you out of my mouth."

Now I'm not a theologian. I took a few classes in college related to exigesis and hermenuitics (finding the meanings in Scripture), but other than that I have no formal training in it. And Revelation is extra tricky to decipher, because it's a vision someone had, full of prophetic statements. A lot of it is strange.

But this one verse makes sense to me. I would posit that God would prefer us humans to choose. Him or no Him. Morality or immorality. Coke or Pepsi. Wait, that last one doesn't belong. But I believe the person who stradles the fence...the guy who tries to feign moral behavior while privately practicing immoral behavior...that guy's not going to get such a great welcome at the pearly gates. It's the old, "you're either for me or against me" argument. If you believe in God, as I do, then you really ought to understand that going half and half on spirituality isn't going to cut it.

And ABC is doing just that. "Look at us, we're long as we're making millions."
It's the same argument I have against people who donate to charity with the primary reason for doing so being the tax deduction. Sure, it's a nice bit of icing to the cake. But if your heart's not really in the giving...for giving's sake...then what's the real level of charity inside you? Would you still donate if there were no tax deduction?

Okay, winding up. I know this has been long. I'm sorry about that. I'm very passionate about this issue...and I've been trying to write this post for a few weeks now. I guess it all just came rushing out.

The one argument I hear most when I tell people these feelings I have on these types of reality shows is this: "Would you rather those needy people not get a house?" And obviously, clearly, the answer is "No." I'm glad the needy few are getting a house. I'm not angry that disadvantaged people are being helped. I'm angry that ABC makes a humongous profit off of it. I'm angry they try and pass it off as all about the good deed. I'm angry about their exploitation of these people. I feel badly that we trample on the rest of the faceless, nameless poor. And ABC, with their huge bankroll, if they really wanted to help people, they could. But they don't. They just want to win the ratings war, and they frankly don't care who they step on to do it.

Man, can you believe that all came out of the brain of a mostly-conservative guy? Some fairly liberal thinking there for a guy who voted Bush.

Anyway, to me, Fear Factor is a far better show, morally speaking. At least they know what they are, and they're not hiding under some false pretense about being for the betterment of society. I think I'm going to start watching Fear Factor as a form of protest. Eh, maybe not. I have a weak stomach. Are there any reality shows out there claiming to help quesy people? If so, sign me up.


At 6/16/2005 02:15:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

The whole thing about reality shows reminds me of the Sarah McLachlan video for "World on Fire" where it explains that the various costs of this video (which is very cheap--it's her in a chair and there's a bunch of stock footage and cheap graphics) could open up more classrooms, buy more food, etc. for poor countries.

I know nothing of McLachlan's intent here...maybe it's to make everyone more aware (there is a graphic that states, "Don't worry, we're not asking for money"), and maybe she personally is helping...I just found the video kind of strange that it would blatantly state that the cost of it is virtually being wasted on something frivolous rather than helping people out (and therefore we ask, "Well, why don't you?"). I have no criticism of her, really (the song is great, too). I just found it odd, but the video is powerful.

It's not the same thing, really. It goes more towards that idea that ABC could build more houses with the money they use to produce one show of EMHE.

At 6/16/2005 02:24:00 PM, Blogger Kennelworthy said...

Yeah, I remember that video! I was pretty moved by it (intellectually and morally) until the end. I thought there'd be some statement at the end like a title card reading, "In the spirit of this video, we've donated the exact amount it cost to the following charities....etc." But there wasn't anything like that. I remember thinking the video's aim (and the song's) is to point out how much money we waste on needless things that could instead go to help the poor. But then why make the video at all? The video's existence seems to contradict its own theme.

At 6/16/2005 02:30:00 PM, Blogger MaraJade said...

It's not that I didn't read the rest of it and agree with you (because I did and I do), but this was just great, "It's in Revelation (not plural, by the way...stupid miniseries idiots)"

I haven't gotten fired from laughing at this blog yet. I think you guys are guilty of false advertising. No, wait, that was me. Nevermind.

I just watched Beauty and the Geek for the first time last night and I gotta say, I love it. I am, however, sick of the reality spin that says every reality show must have a vote off. Why can't it just be like real world where we watch these people try to better themselves? (Okay, on rw they didn't better themselves, but they also didn't get voted off. Maybe it's a poor comparison, but it's 3:30 and I get to leave in an hour and a half to go see Batman. Oh well.)

At 6/16/2005 08:35:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

The thing about "The Swan" that always bothered me was that they take these unfortunate looking individuals. A lot of them had looks that were the results of birth defects and fires and such; really unfortunate stuff. They spend all of this money to make them look so much better and make them feel happier about themselves. And then in the end the majority of them are still told they are not beautiful enough to be in the beauty contest. How much more of an asshole could you possibly be?

At 6/17/2005 03:45:00 PM, Blogger Kevin Rector said...

I didn't comment on this post for some time because:

1. I don't totally agree with you but I don't have the energy to come up with a really robust reply.
2. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the whole thing.
3. I'm a lame-o.

Ok, so here goes.

If you mean that exploitation is the victimization of someone then we are in total agreement that it is a bad thing.

But I am not sure that I buy your premise that the families on EMHE are being exploited in that sense. Here's why:

First of all, not every person on EMHE is a sob story. I remember one episode where they built a house for a lady because she had devoted her life to helping other people and she simply always gave her money to people who were less fortunate than herself instead of selfishly "moving up" the socio-economic scale. She did not ask for a new house or new furnishings. Rather, she was nominated by the people whom she had helped. There is no way you can say that she was exploited.

Secondly, this is a free market world (at least in theory) and all the participants are willing and are all profiting. Sears gets cheap advertising by putting washers and dryer in the house. ABC get's money from advertisers (and maybe even a warm fuzzy feeling in their calloused corporate hearts). Ty Pennington get's a fat paycheck, a line at Sears, and notoriety. The families get a new home with some really great swag in it.

By the same token everyone has to pay something. Sears has to pay for those washers and dryers, ABC has to pay for the costs of the shows and the salaries of people like Ty Pennington. Ty has to spend his time and talents. And the families spend their time and their privacy.

Everyone is selling something, and everyone is getting something, and everyone is a willing responsible participant. So ultimately I just can't find the victim in these shows (don't get me started on The Swan I do think that show is evil).

Finally, I do agree that there is nothing altruistic on the part of ABC and it does annoy me as well that they market it as a do-gooder show. Also, I do agree that they spend to much time making the show melodramatic. Tell me the reason the family gets a new house and then build them one. I'd rather see them happy than crying.

At 6/17/2005 04:02:00 PM, Blogger Kennelworthy said...

Well you make a few good points.

But I would even say that the little lady you mention in your first example is being exploited...a little. Exploited like women in porn are exploited? No. But I could use all your arguments in an attempt to prove that pornography doesn't exploit women (they make money and give up their privacy...the filmmaker gives up money and makes money, etc.) but I don't think either of us would think that argument holds water.

I'm guessing you might say, "Women in pornography are being exploited because many of them are young and naive and don't know any better. They get seduced by the lifestyle and the cash."

Okay. I'd agree. And that's the same thing I'd say about these reality shows. THat little old lady who gives all her money away is probably naive about exactly how much privacy she gives up to get that new house. Don't get me started on the seven siblings with dead parents, as "they're young and naive" AND grief stricken.

See, a lot of these families won't weigh all the options and pros and cons simply because they've been living poor for too long.

Anyway, I'm digressing.

I guess my definition of exploitation is looser than yours. Mine would be: when people are used by others for monetary gain. While all the people who get a new house are willing participants...the show then comes in, and Ty Pennington says, "So it's probably hard with your dead parents being gone, isn't it?" And they start reliving memories and they bawl and cry.

Even the ones that aren't sob stories...they're private lives and its details are being broadcast all over the world. And while they get a new house...the money ABC gets from that one episode is probably a hundred times the cost of that new house.

All parties give up something and all parties get something. But the show and the network "get" a hell of a lot more than the "contestants" do. And to get that money, they film and play the private moments of the "contestants."

The biggest problem I have with these shows is their pretense of being charitable when they are nothing more than commerce-related. But even if there are EMHE episodes without the sob stories...the fact that most DO have sob stories makes me hate the show.

Why do we, the average viewers, need any specifics at all about the needy people's tragedy? Why do we as a nation connect better with a good deed when we know the seedy, scary, ugly truth about their poverty? It's the same thing as craning your neck to look at a vicious car accident when you drive by, right?

And the shows cater to this. They know the public has an insatiable appetite for details to private lives we have no business knowing. So they give it to them.

On John's point about the Swan...I've always said the exact same thing!! It comes off as trying to help people's self-esteem ("we'll give you surgery so you can feel better about your body") and then throws them immediately into direct competition with one another! What the hell is that? The problem in our country is that we are too quick to measure our own self-worth by what others have, and by what the TV and magazines say we should have. Personally, I find my happiness from having fun with close friends...from living the life I want to live...not from cutting my hair like Brad Pitt's and stapling my stomach.

At 7/21/2005 11:59:00 AM, Blogger NLock said...

I joined after this was posted, so it's late and old, and likely ono one will read it. But I could not help but put in a cent or two. There is a movement in the organizational behavior literature about corporate responsibility and positive organizational scholarship (POS). One of the core principles of POS is the concept of positive deviancy (seems like an oxymoron but has gained increasing support among scholars in the latter 20th early 21st century). Positive deviancy is an act that, based on the normative principle of social control, goes beyond normal in a positive sense that would cause the referent group to say, "Gee, that was way above and beyond normal." It's the "gasp factor" of social contorol, i.e. Durkheim only we aren't talking moral outrage, we're talking taking a financial hit for the common good. If the groups gasps and says oh wow, it is likely a deviant behavior, positive or negative.

Merck is probably the best case of positive deviance we really have so far in corporate america. They created a medication that would wipe out a particular disease. The target group for the medication could not afford it and continued to get sick and die. Merck manufactured and distributed it FREE eventually eliminating the complication. Some say well Merck stood to gain from that financially because everyone would say that Merck, Co. cares about us. Let's buy Merck. Thing is, they lost money doing it and it would be a risky business proposition to try and predict stock price maximization on an act of good will. So for these companies that say they are protecting the environment, but aren't taking a risk, aren't necessarily positive organizations according to POS. They are simply trying to foster good will for the sake of the dollar or the euro or whatever the case may be. Reality television is NOT a positive act of deviance. All this to say, I'm with you, man.


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