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     Volume 5 Issue 92 | April 28, 2006|

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Straight Talk

15 minutes of Fame

Nadia Kabir Barb

I just saw the finals of Indian Idol 2. While watching Sandeep Achariya being crowned the next singing sensation, I wondered how his opponent NC Karunya must have been feeling at the time. I had watched a few episodes in Dhaka on my last visit in December and then when I returned I chanced upon another episode and told myself I was just going to see which of the contestants were still in the show and which ones had been voted out. However, one episode turned into another and then before I knew it I was watching the finale. When I caught myself actually speculating about the contestants and their wellbeing I realised that I had been slowly and steadily lured into the world of reality TV! It always starts with, "oh, I'm only going to watch this episode to see what it's all about" and the next thing you know you are cancelling dinner plans so you can stay at home curled up on the sofa with a nice hot drink waiting for your favourite reality show. Does this mean soap operas have become passé? Not really, it only means that reality TV has made a very significant place in people's daily viewing alongside ones favourite soaps.

American Idol, Indian Idol, X Factor, Fear Factor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, America's Next Top Model, Beauty and The Geek, Survivor, The Biggest Loser, Nanny 911 …the list just keeps going on and on. I probably have not even named a fraction of the number of reality shows broadcast every day but recently, whichever channel you seem to switch on, there is some sort of reality television programme being aired. In the same way that Starbucks appears to be taking over the coffee shop scene, reality TV seems to have taken over the small screen. An actor friend of ours recently commented that soon most actors would be out of a job as they would be watching us on TV and not the other way around, judging from the huge number of different types of reality shows being produced and aired the whole time!

The concepts that people are coming up with nowadays are just getting more and more bizarre. But there also seems to be an audience for most of these outrageous programmes. Whether it is a relatively straightforward talent show like American Idol or X factor, or the quest for love as we are shown in other reality shows or just airing one's dirty laundry (literally as well as metaphorically), there seems to be a niche for most types of reality shows. I mean, who comes up with the idea where some construction worker masquerades as a multi millionaire and has to choose a partner from a bevy of girls? Firstly, it strikes me as a touch dishonest to pretend to be someone you really are not and don't you think that participating in a show like this might make the girls look just a tad shallow? Maybe we are not really meant to analyse the contents of the show. Oh yes, and what about the one where you call in a professional nanny to come and sort your children out because you can't handle them yourselves? I doubt that any of us would appreciate our offspring being dubbed as 'super brats' or like the idea of showing the whole world that we are incapable of controlling them. But lo and behold, there are people doing just that on TV.

However, this is not to say that all reality TV shows are massive successes. There are some programmes that obviously do not catch the interest of the general public and can be added on to the list of shows that just die a natural and inevitable death. But the ones that do make it big time are often reproduced in different countries and adapted slightly to fit the sensibilities of the audience and the contestants of that region. For example, Indian Idol may share the same format as American Idol or Pop Idol (UK) but the show is geared in a way to appeal to its targeted audience.

But why are these shows about real people so fascinating to us? I think deep down we must all be voyeurs to some extent. Otherwise reality TV would never have taken off in the first place. The Jerry Springer Show was known for its shock value yet it had a huge following. Big Brother follows the fish bowl scenario and we are privy to every movement the contestants make and once again people seem to be interested in this concept. Fear Factor makes our hearts beat faster when we see the participants lying in a tank full of snakes or scaling the wall of a multi-storeyed building but still people keep watching. We are either commenting on how crazy some people are to broadcast their entire lives --- the good the bad and the unsavoury, on national TV or we are shocked at the bitchiness or cattiness that some of the participants are capable of yet we are still glued to the set. That seems to be the power of reality TV.

There are some programmes which in my view do go too far and watching people get humiliated in public isn't my cup of tea. It is one thing to follow the trials and tribulations of the contestants and see how they fare but there is no pleasure in seeing others being berated or demeaned on national television. Sadly, some people do take pleasure in the misfortunes of others -- one could call this 'Schadenfreude' a German word meaning 'malicious or smug pleasure taken in somebody else's misfortune'. Although I like to think that this is a very small percentage of the viewing public.

It looks like Reality TV is here to stay -- at least for the time being and it is very likely that we, the viewers will keep watching.

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