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     Volume 4 Issue 35 | February 25, 2005 |

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Food for Thought

Another dose of Reality

Farah Ghuznavi

Ok, ok, I have a confession to make! I thought that my column of some weeks ago, had allowed me to say all I thought (and was seething over) with regard to reality TV. I really thought I had got it out of my system, but the relentless series of programmes that has continued to attract (and misuse) my attention in recent weeks makes it clear to me that there is yet more to be said on this subject (sadly enough, no doubt TV producers use the same justification i.e. another new angle, to allow them to keep churning out endless programmes on various "reality" themes)…

And speaking of themes, the three key ones I have identified so far (purely in the interests of research, of course!) are self-improvement, self-enrichment and self-promotion (i.e. sensationalism).

The first issue that of self-improvement is pervasive, and centres mainly around lifestyles. It includes everything from buying properties (how to find your dream house in a variety of locations e.g. the UK, Spain etc), to how to re-design your existing home or garden, to how to improve your relationships with people (friends/colleagues/life-partners), or even how to completely change the way you dress (which, it is claimed, will change your life no danger of style over substance there!!) At any rate, clearly nothing you currently own (or are), is good enough…And for anyone who has been channel-surfing in the vain hope of some entertainment, the emergence of yet ANOTHER home improvement programme cannot be anything other than repulsive!

Under the second theme (i.e. money), managing your finances better is a clear priority and a recurrent theme. Given the current scale of credit card debt, and the pressure to have all the "basics" of life in western consumer societies e.g. house, washing machine, car(s) etc, it is not perhaps that strange that learning how to manage money better is emerging as an urgent need for many people. What is far stranger is how so many people have survived for so long without these basic skills! One programme which highlights this is called "Bank of Mum and Dad", where parents move in with their errant offspring, who are usually in their early twenties, and have somehow, invariably managed to rack up several thousand pounds worth of credit card debt.

For a period of seven days (with the help of a professional financial adviser) the parents take charge of their children's cash and credit cards, and start putting into place measures that will help them to sort out their debt e.g. by finding them additional part-time work to boost their earnings, teaching them to cook (thereby reducing weekly expenditures on food), bullying them into buying fewer CDs/clothes/gadgets etc. While the children invariably resent this, in some cases, it actually works i.e. they start a long-term process of changing their spending habits in order to pay off their debts. Of course, this nevertheless raises the unavoidable question that, if parents can bring about such drastic changes within the space of a week, why on earth didn't they teach their children all this stuff much earlier?!

Another variation on the self-enrichment theme is that of people who have decided on a change of lifestyle in order to live their dreams, usually involving a new career which (it is hoped) will prove to be reasonably lucrative. An interesting one in this genre is "Chaos at the Castle", in which an English couple with two small children move to France, and spend half a million pounds (borrowed from the bank) on buying a broken-down chateau, with a plan of restoring it, and turning it into a paying hotel of sorts. The programme follows their fortunes over a period of a year or so. As they are basically amateurs albeit talented ones plenty of things go wrong as they find out just how challenging it can be to manage paying customers, but it is interesting to see how much creative thinking they manage to demonstrate in the process!

Finally, as no doubt already noted by perceptive observers of reality TV (i.e. anyone who is still awake ten minutes into a programme!), sensationalism continues to be an ever-present theme. As one critic pointed out, even programmes concerned with finding rare or exotic animals revolve around extremes i.e. locating the most gigantic python, capturing the most vicious killer crocodile etc…

Another hot favourite among the programmes currently on offer is on the theme of swapping spouses, which is actually much less sensational than it sounds. In this scenario, the wife of one family moves in for a couple of weeks with another family (living in their guest room, of course), and vice versa. The swap centres around how each wife must follow the rules laid down by the woman whose house she has moved into for the first week of the swap. But, during the second week, she gets to impose her own rules on the husband, children and pets of the family she has moved in with! Since the programme makers thrive on finding women who are opposites in terms of how they organise their families and their lives, this makes for a high degree of drama, controversy and chaos over the two-week period. For instance in one episode, a highly organised professional woman, who also happens to be black, is placed in a white household with distinctly racist attitudes, where the children do not take kindly to her telling them what to do…Fortunately, in that case, she managed to drag them into the age of enlightenment i.e. the 21st century, by the time she was finished!

The key themes mentioned (self-improvement, fiscal discipline and sensationalism) are not always handled discretely either sometimes the aim seems to be to find the most appalling combination. For example, a programme called "How clean is your house?" goes into people's houses to find out how much filth and degradation people are capable of living in (believe me, you don't want to know!), thereby serving the dual purpose of providing sensational revelations about someone's personal habits, with the aim of self-improvement i.e. individuals are taught how and why to keep their homes clean (something that you might think should be self evident!)

And then of course there are the programmes (also in the sensationalist category) that thrive on placing celebrities in challenging situations - desert islands, farms, detox programmes etc, which make up the various versions of "celebrity boot camp". My own feeling is that the reason people watch this kind of programme is because seeing so-called celebrities cut down to size appeals to our baser instincts (perhaps the part of us that is tired of being told how useless we are in choosing our furnishings, cleaning our houses and dealing with our spouses…!)

Ultimately, considering the overwhelming proliferation of the generic "how to do something better" shows decorating houses, landscaping gardens, cleaning houses, managing finances, I have to say I find it all a bit depressing. I am sure there are some nuggets of wisdom (or at least, common sense!) under all the trash, but it does make you question whether we are capable of doing anything for ourselves (without professional advice) anymore….!

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