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     Volume 4 Issue 24 | December 10, 2004 |

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Food For Thought

Reality Tv:

Not Much Reality (but A Lot of TV!)

Farah Ghuznavi

The verdict is in, and it doesn't look promising: Reality TV is here to stay - for the time being, at least (much as one might wish it otherwise). For those who have been living in another solar system for the last couple of years, or those few individuals fortunate enough not to have come across this phenomenon (presumably they don't have a TV!), the term "Reality TV" refers to the recent mania for TV shows about "real" people in situations that are often far from real. The range of shows falling under this umbrella also covers (or perhaps, exposes?) a multitude of sins.

The first time this form of "entertainment" really hit our screens in a big way was through the screening of "Big Brother", in which a selection of mildly maladjusted individuals purporting to represent a cross-section of the public in their country of origin were thrown together for a fixed period of time (usually 100 days) in the glare of twenty-four hour television cameras. The footage was then edited to provide "highlights" for the enjoyment of viewers. Over a period of time, participants were gradually voted out by the public, leaving one winner. A harmless enough formula, you might think, though perhaps with limited entertainment potential but the public (in over a dozen countries) really took to it! So much so, that the fifth series of Big Brother was recently concluded in the UK, after the producers (increasingly desperate to boost the entertainment value of this programme to a virtually un-shockable public) had put together a truly mind-boggling selection of weirdos, specifically chosen for their extreme personality types. Sadly enough, it obviously worked, since the public continue to follow the (further) antics of some of the key participants through the regular gossip magazines…

If you have gathered from this that I am not a fan of Big Brother, you are right!

But I have to admit, that in its early days, I was not completely immune to the attractions of some forms of reality TV (blame it on a lifelong preoccupation with documentaries). For example, the BBC series "Castaway" held my attention for pretty much the duration of its first run. It was based on the idea of putting together a group of about 25 people (including families) from diverse racial, religious and class backgrounds, and leaving them on an uninhabited island, with the aim of building a society of their own.

They were provided with help for certain tasks building shelters, farming, raising and killing livestock etc. Since the aim was for the community to be self-sufficient, they also included individuals with key skills e.g. a doctor, a teacher and so on. Actually, it was interesting, particularly in terms of the interactions between people, their successes and failures in getting along, and their attempts to build this "castaway" society. In my defence, I have to say that the clear difference between this kind of programme and the "Big Brother" version of a social experiment lay not least in the fact that these were (reasonably) real people facing practical challenges in adapting to a different environment. Purist critics of reality TV may of course be unimpressed by such distinctions!

Another category is the themed reality show. Star TV screened one such programme "Fight School", where a number of martial arts champions from the United Kingdom were taken to some kind of monastery in China, where they had to compete in a series of traditional martial arts challenges (many of which they were unfamiliar with), as well as adapt to a completely different style of living. Indeed, a rather more Spartan lifestyle than they were used to (as evidenced by various bouts of frustration and occasional tears, including a hysterical scene upon discovering that one meal contained most of the recognisable body parts of a duck, including its head presumably these contestants had been used to eating their Chinese food so sanitised that they were not aware that roasted ducks actually had heads!). This kind of show probably appeals to those with special interests i.e. martial arts, as well as a more standard curiosity around how disparate personalities/egos will deal with such testing situations.

More recently, particularly in the US, there has been a shift to some fairly bizarre reality TV shows usually involving one Alpha (attractive, rich, good-looking) male or female, who spends time with a number of less interesting members of the opposite sex (in the form of supervised dates, pseudo romantic walks on the beach all of which are filmed of course!). After a gradual process of elimination - often long drawn out and painful (for the viewer, if not the participant!), one non-Alpha man or woman is ultimately selected as the winner. This person is therefore wins a prize e.g. a trip with the "Hawaiian Queen" or "Prince Charming Bachelor" who is the lead character in the show…hardly, one would suspect, the beginning of a lasting relationship!

A more intelligent (as well as funnier, and therefore more entertaining) variation on this theme is a programme like "Meeting the Parents", where three participants are chaperoned by the parents of the lead character (usually a reasonably attractive young man or woman). In the case of a woman, the three men then have to impress the woman's parents, during a weekend in their home, and face quite a few challenges including being put through a session of parental questioning with the use of lie detector equipment, which often has them squirming! I can imagine quite a few parents out there would like such an opportunity to grill potential candidates interested in their offspring…

Another current hit is what I would call a variation on the "endurance" theme, where a bunch of "Z-list celebrities" (the kind you probably wouldn't recognise if you ran into them in Agora), spend two weeks in the Australian rainforest, where they are also put through a series of challenges e.g. swimming through a (non-poisonous) snake- infested lake to win prizes (e.g. extra blankets) for their fellow jungle dwellers. Another element of this is the "bush tucker trial" where selected participants face the challenge of eating something quite disgusting e.g. live caterpillars, in order win (nice) food rations for the entire team. Unsurprisingly, this programme is entitled, "I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!", and thrives precisely on putting people in situations they haven't faced before. The extent of the change of environment is evident in the fact that some contestants have been known to weep because they weren't given any deodorant in their survival packs! And to think they actually vie to be on the show - clearly some people will do anything to be on TV…

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