Reality show, oxymoron
Reality shows feeds off the anxieties and insecurities of our self-absorbed lives. They also feed into our insatiable greed and voracious appetites
Ratna Raman Delhi
In the beginning, there was only black and white television and it was with Doordarshan. And Doordarshan owned it in entirety! Reality was a solitary television set on the street with a motley community watching an emotive film or Chitrahaar once a week. Krishi Darshan was the only reality show on Indian television then. Two men droned knowledgeably on obscure farming details, ensuring that the twain of city dwellers and sons and daughters of the soil never met. Television provided an escape from a world where we inoculated ourselves from hidden microbes and possible epidemics, stood in milk and ration lines, got an education of sorts and played gali-sports.
Once in a while we ran outdoors to gawk at street performers walking the tightrope and small boys and girls twisting themselves into unlikely contortions. Within our closed everyday lives, a friend who could wiggle his ears, a wiry cousin who would turn cartwheels or a neighbour's daughter who hung out with an undesirable boy, constituted the entire spectrum of our engagement with the bold and the brazen, the extraordinary or the odd.
Post 1982, with the arrival of the Asian Games and colour television, things have never really been the same. Into uneventful everyday lives of gradual evolution towards social being, percolated a world of fun, daring, excitement, unpredictability and bravado that swept us off our feet and seated us before the new, rectangular, multicoloured world of television. Colour television arguably was a new age legacy handed to us from our tech-savvier and this-worldlier cousins in the West. It ushered in a modern world knit together by more shared similarities than ever before. It endorsed wholeheartedly the freedom of self-expression and equality that was part of the hard-won rights of ordinary people the world over. Literature reflected these changes. Ordinary men and women became the new role models, and authors all over the globe put pen to paper to reveal hitherto unknown details of ordinary lives everywhere. This new cultural phenomena was harnessed by the producers of television shows as well. Television now provided a platform for new icons, both male and female, multiplying in geometrical progression among the literate, clothed and well-fed of the world.
The genealogy of reality shows can be traced to the US and Candid Camera in 1948-9. An ordinary person's life was filmed by hidden cameras and put up for view. This elicited shock, surprise, comedy, notoriety and some amount of public attention, all of which was gratifyingly eyeball-grabbing as far as show ratings went. A popular German TV show of the 1970s, Telematch pitted members from two competing towns, who wore bizarre costumes and participated in mock-sporting events. Since then we have had talk shows (The Jay Leno Show), quizzes (The Weakest Link), talent searches (American Idol) and food shows (Top Chef), giving us an up-close-and-personal view of complete strangers, from halfway around the world.
Reality TV showcased elements of daredevilry, and bare-all and unrehearsed, unexpurgated experience created its own brand of surprise, shock, comedy and titillation. These continue to be staple ingredients of reality shows and are now worldwide phenomena. Every nation with a television network has a reality show of its own and depending on franchisees, a global audience. By the end of the 1990s, over a period of 50 years, Survivor and Big Brother, the granddaddies of the worldwide reality shows, controlled and projected the accretions of popular culture and ushered in the 21st century by dominating prime time viewing in nuclear households everywhere.
'REALITY SHOW' as a figure of speech could be classified under the category oxymoron and begs the naïve question, namely, how can reality be on show?
However, an exegesis of reality shows provides a glimpse into the kinds of contraries and oppositions it yokes together. Using the latest in modern viewing technology, reality shows foster antediluvian and atavistic patterns of human behaviour which evolving societies normally jettison en route to greater civic and social development. Take, for instance, the popular reality show, Survivor. It stations its cast on a remote island, divides it into small groups (tribes) and rewards the sole member who survives against all odds in hostile conditions, with prize money. In doing so, the show mocks paradigmatic human struggle for survival in adverse conditions.
Big Brother provides a similar schema for earning cash within a large household where hidden cameras regularly transmit audio-visual output to an audience that views all activities undertaken by the inmates and has the authority to evict them. Big Brother lays down whimsical household codes and throws out recalcitrant inmates in a world of decimating social relationships and corroding familial authority. Why should thinking young people wish to be either viewers or participants in reality shows that are a throwback to an earlier period in evolutionary social history when the young chafed against rules and restrictions and opted out of mainstream prescriptions?
Yet, both shows riveted audiences and inspired replications all over the world. Twenty-first century audience interest in reality-show characters possibly exceeds the interest that Charles Dickens's fictional characters once commanded in the 19th century during the serial publication of his novels. Recall, for instance, the international interest in Jade Goody's racist remarks to our own Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother, which was then fanned with copious research on Shetty's apriori private life, Shetty Senior's purchases without payment, Jade Goody's working-class background, her remorse on being publicly reviled, her make-amends goodwill visit to India, her short-lived marriage and her eventual succumbing to cancer. While 19th-century audience reactions cohered around definite social and moral codes, contemporary audiences of reality shows reveal the erosion and irrelevance of such codes.
Reality shows effectively feed into prurient and voyeuristic instincts and showcase such instincts as normative. They provide hitherto unavailable opportunities to the viewer who is no longer a mere spectator. As an active part of the show and not called upon to rein in visceral behaviour, the viewer is allowed unlimited vicarious pleasure. Arguably, reality shows incite participants to aggressive and competitive behaviour and validate these as desirable. Contestants cheat, lie, bicker and are dishonourable on shows, and this is becoming uniformly acceptable.
Meanwhile, viewers replicate throwback parochial tribe behaviour in the event of having to favour a contestant. Intrepid hosts such as the late Steve Irwin and congenial hosts such as Oprah seemed to believe in the first principle of television as infotainment. Over time, show hosts metamorphosed from facilitators into cultural czars and czarinas and displayed some kind of attitude as an imperative to propel the event. Hosts were subsequently authorised to humiliate participants on the show and send them off the air.
In India, we have channelised our skills at recycling and adapting to revamp imported reality shows and make them our own. Big Boss recently left everyone breathless while featuring Pamela Anderson as a house guest. Another reality show, the Rakhi Sawant Swayamvara, was a hideous travesty of women's freedom to choose partners in a patriarchal society, which in practice probably adds up to decimal figures. Rakhi Sawant was no princeling's daughter but an item girl selected by the organisers. The USP of the show was the titillation provided by Rakhi, a vicarious participation in the fifteen seconds of fame gained by the households she visited in search of a groom, and the serial humiliation of suitors, including the chosen 'var' with whom the projected marriage never materialised.
In the next season, Rakhi had graduated to another show and surfaced yet again as the host of a brand new show. In Rakhi ka Insaaf (Rakhi's Justice), her highly objectionable reference to a participant as impotent allegedly triggered off the latter's suicide. Steve Irwin's untimely death by sting ray can be accounted for as a horrible accident that need not have happened. How do we make sense of the life-threatening injuries received by Samuel Koch during a CBS reality show broadcast live in Germany? Samuel, while jumping over a succession of cars, collided with the car driven by his own father.
Once upon a time, across all religions, we had anthropomorphic gods making arbitrary demands. Appeasing them involved the blood sacrifice of an innocent, dearly beloved child. The gods, when appeased, graciously recreated the child who was annihilated at their behest, at the end of the story. Such narratives invariably evoked shock and awe, and possibly all viewers of reality shows carry this memory with them. Since reality shows seldom end fortuitously, how else do we explain the fact that despite people being badly injured, killed or lacerated for life, nobody sits up, sobers down or shouts that enough is enough? No one feels a sense of violation, of outrage, or even disgust at the crassness being paraded centre stage. There is not even a suggestion of anything as remote as collective guilt. Instead, at the end of a death or a debasement or a humiliation, the show ratings go up and demons dance inside us all.
Reality shows occupy a space that feeds off the anxieties and insecurities of our self-absorbed lives. They also feed into our insatiable greed and voracious appetites as we huddle in front of our home theatres or flat screens, wall-mounted on swivels or ornately placed on special consoles, greedily consuming the reality that is definitively on show. At a time when film-making draws upon state-of-the-art technology, the reality show continues to be something of an anomaly. It seeks to tease out and address vestigial social and cultural habits, and presents them as significant milestones.
Meanwhile, the producers and organisers rake in the proverbial moolah. The viewer is provided value for money as a single sms empowers the settling of a virtual grudge and will seal a contestant's fate. The sms service provider and the organiser split the crores raked in at the end of each episode and laugh all the way to the bank. Complete obeisance (and this in an emancipated age) is demanded by the omniscient new god of reality shows, Mammon. Registering my disquiet, he turns in my direction and spins me around remarking, "The name of the game, honey, is power and money!" As I stagger disbelievingly, he guffaws, "there is more to come and frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!" Blubbering, I fumble for the switch-off button on my remote.
The writer is Associate Professor, English Literature, Delhi University