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    Volume 9 Issue 2 | January 8, 2010|

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Food for Thought

TV Times
Putting the Idiot into “Idiot Box”

Farah Ghuznavi

As far as 21st century programming quality goes, much as I enjoy communing with it, I have to admit that the TV is not known as the "idiot box" for nothing. And while old television programmes may seem dated and ridiculous at times, it can probably be said with truth that at no time in the past have we ever scraped the barrel, in terms of substantive content, to the extent that we regularly do today. Perhaps that's the inevitable consequence of having dozens - if not hundreds - of cable channels available to us; or perhaps it's just the result of a competition for ratings that almost inevitably seems to focus on the lowest common denominator as a means of attracting the highest possible number of idiots!

This increasingly sensationalist approach to entertainment has led to stultifying boredom in the form of programmes such as the airhead socialite Paris Hilton's "search for a new best friend” - supposedly to be selected from a group of nonentities willing to put themselves through a series of increasingly humiliating trials for this dubious privilege. Not to mention the use of stale formats such as the "Bachelor" series, which is traditionally based around the idea of one man selecting a mate from a bevy of beauties hanging onto his every word (in some cases, the roles are reversed, with one woman choosing from a group of men). This absurd process has recently degenerated into the even more desperate gimmick of pitting 20-year-old women against 40-year-old women in “Bachelor 20/40”, to see whether the "discerning" bachelor will choose an older woman over a younger one.

In any case, reality shows are dime-a-dozen these days, as are the endless talk shows, many of which churn out a steady diet of publicity regarding the latest weird social trends and sensational gossip about celebrity antics/relationships. And as with the talk show content, other TV shows of various shades seem to be following a pattern of going for the most bizarre gimmick they can come up with. A well known example of this is "Fear Factor" which basically provides people with an "opportunity" to win a prize by putting themselves through some grotesque experience (preferably one related to their deepest fear or phobia e.g. being dropped into a pit full of snakes or sky diving, for those who have a terror of heights).

In this category, it is Japanese television shows which hands-down provide the most terrible examples of self-inflicted pain or public humiliation; such programmes are probably most effective in entertainment terms when viewed as black comedy. Indeed, their legendary cruelty has recently inspired a new reality TV series, entitled - you guessed it! - "I Survived a Japanese Game Show".

But to be fair, not all reality TV programming is junk. Usually the shows which have some element of competition that is based on merit can provide worthwhile viewing. Increasingly, formats are being developed whereby professionals can compete in order to secure a title such as "Top Chef", or get a job with one of the world's leading businesspeople as an "Apprentice" or achieve recognition as an up-and-coming designer in "Project Runway". What these shows offer is not only the opportunity to take an inside look at the fashion industry or the business world, but also to watch the personal dynamics and occupational dramas of a whole cast of "real" characters - and some of them are undoubtedly real characters, in every sense of the word!

Some reality shows, more documentary-style, have gone even further in terms of developing interesting challenges, and have ended up showcasing some fascinating initiatives, more like social experiments. Like one British series that placed a cross-section of individuals (representing different elements within British society) on an uninhabited island, with the aim not merely of survival, or even self-sufficiency, but to actually set up a functioning social structure with a system of laws, behavioural rules and regular voting for elections to particular posts.

A similarly innovative idea was developed by another UK series entitled "The Baby Borrowers". Over a period of several weeks, teenage couples were provided with jobs and a living space, and given the responsibility of looking after a series of dependents. These ranged from small babies to young children to teenagers and, eventually, elderly people. The results were, to say the least, fascinating viewing. And a real wake-up call for the teenagers!

If such serious stuff is not for you, then there are always the more mainstream offerings such as American Idol, which has been going strong for several seasons. Its easily-digestible formula of attractive people, (mostly) enjoyable music and highly-opinionated, colourful judges appears to have been able to hold the attention of a fairly wide global audience, with many countries launching their own Idol shows. The phenomenon has, of course, also taken off in Bangladesh, with a series of sponsored competitions collecting a lion's share of viewer ratings in recent years.

It must be admitted however, that such shows and competitions are usually skewed in favour of the more attractive participants. But perhaps that's an occupational hazard in the entertainment industry. Notwithstanding that, I suspect that many people were shocked when one of the judges at the International Idol competition (held between the winners of the national-level Idol competitions) said so quite bluntly to one of the contestants. Scandinavian Kurt Nilsen was informed by Judge Simon Cowell (who else!) that although he had a beautiful voice, he looked like "a hobbit". This was of course a reference to the "Lord of the Rings" film and book trilogy, and a highly unflattering one at that.

According to Cowell, if the competition had been aiming to identify an "Idol of Middle Earth", Nilsen might have won, but in Cowell's view, looking the way he did, Nilsen had no chance of winning the title of International Idol! But when the results of the international voting for the contest finally came in, it turned out that for once substance had actually won out over style. The "hobbit" not only won the contest, Nilsen won it by a resounding majority of international votes. So the final laugh was instead on Simon Cowell and his congenitally shallow ilk...




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