The Reality of Reality Television

There is a persistent dream that television will be more than it is: that it will not only sit in every home, but make a conduit for those homes to reach back to a shared fund of life.

The utopia of television nearly came within reach in 1992, on the day cable providers announced that cable boxes would expand to 500 channels. Back then, our utopian idea rested on assumptions both right and wrong. We assumed network-sized broadcasters could never afford new programming for so many active channels. That was right. We also assumed TV subscribers wouldn’t stand for 500 channels of identical fluff, network reruns, syndicated programs, second-run movies, infomercials, and home shopping. That was wrong.

We were sure the abundance of channels would bring on stations of pure environmental happiness, carrying into our homes the comforts everyone craves: the 24-hour Puppy Channel, the Sky Channel, the Ocean Channel, the Baby Channel—showing nothing but frolicsome puppies, placid sky, tumultuous ocean, and big-headed babies. It never happened. And yet cable TV did indeed get cut up for small pleasures, in the advertisement of more utilitarian interests, on the Food Network, the InStyle Network, and Home and Garden Television (HGTV).(Natural beauty took hold on cable only in the pious slideshows of the Christian channels, where Yosemite is subtitled by 1st Corinthians.)

The meaningful history of technology turns out to be a history of its fantasized uses as much as of the shapes it actually takes. Our cable-box dreams finally rested on one beautiful notion: the participatory broadcasting of real life. With such a ludicrous number of channels, companies would just have to give some of the dial over to the rest of us, the viewers—wouldn’t they? And we millions would flow into the vacuum of content. We’d manifest our nature on channels 401 to 499 as surely as do puppies, ocean, and sky. We’d do it marrying, arguing, staring at the wall, dining, studying our feet, holding contests, singing, sneezing. Hundreds of thousands of us had cameras. Well, we’d plug them in and leave the tape running for our real life.

In this underlying dream, we were neither exactly wrong nor right. The promise of the 500 channels went to waste. The techno-utopians’ fantasies shifted to the internet. Nothing like the paradise we hoped for came to fruition on TV, that’s for sure. Instead we got reality TV.


The assessment of reality television depends first on your notion of television; second, on your idea of political community.

Here is a standard misconception: since the noblest forms of artistic endeavor are fictional and dramatic (the novel, film, painting, plays), it can be assumed that the major, proper products of television will be its dramatic entertainments, the sitcom and the hour-long drama. I think this is wrong, and very possibly wrong for a whole number of reasons. Drama has a different meaning in a commercial medium where “programming” came into being as bacon to wrap the real morsels of steak, the 90-second advertisements. It means something different when it exists in a medium we switch on to see “what’s on TV” rather than to find a given single work; when the goal is more often to watch television than to watch a particular drama and then turn it off.

From its beginnings in the early 1950s, TV has been blamed for encouraging overindividualism, for hastening consumer suckerdom, for spurring passivity and couch-potatoness, and for making up the sensational bread-and-circuses of mass-culture tyranny. That pretty much covers it. And yet when opponents tried to divide the wretched things flickering inside the idiot-box into categories, they made excuses for quite unnecessary forms that they felt they recognized (highbrow TV dramas) while deriding unique and far more important items that didn’t suit their vision of dramatic art (game shows, local news, now reality shows).

The real principled problem ought to be with drama. The modern form of the longstanding Western philosophical argument against placing drama at the center of a republic was articulated twenty years beforethe American Revolution. Rousseau insisted in his Letter to M. D’Alembert that a republic (in his case Geneva, circa 1758) was correct to keep a theater out of its public life. To Rousseau, a republic is a political community in which each person is equal and sovereign—as it should be to us, today, living in the American republic. The citizen is not sovereign alone, but sovereign through his activity in a community of peers. The drama, when it was given too much power, crowded out the true entertainments of any republican political community— entertainments whose delights must be rooted in that self-regard and free judgment in daily activity which strengthens the bonds of citizen to citizen. (Bear in mind that Rousseau, in ancien régime Paris, loved the theater: “Racine charms me and I have never willingly missed a performance of Molière.” A corrupt order, of nobility and monarchy, could hardly be made worse by drama and might be made better. But the philosopher loved a republic more.)

Rousseau expected that a republic’s civic entertainments would be displays of what people already do. Singing, building, decorating, beauty, athletics, and dancing gave pleasure and “entertainment” because the participants not only accomplished the acts but became spectacles to themselves—and to others, their equals and fellow-citizens, who had done just the same activities. Republican entertainments might often take the form of the contest or the demonstration. But they might also be the special celebration of ordinary living itself—the “festival”:

Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; let them become actors themselves; do it so each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united.

“Let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves”: a part of TV has always done this. It has meant, at different times, local programming, Huntley and Brinkley, the national news at 6 and local news at 11, talk shows and talent shows, This is Your Life and the regional tours of Wheel of Fortune. Accept, though, that television’s most important function might always have been to let citizens see each other and be seen in their representatives—in our only truly national universal medium—and you’re left to ask what will accomplish it best today. Reality television may furnish its dark apotheosis—a form for an era in which local TV has been consolidated out of existence, regional differences are said to be diminishing (or anyway are less frequently represented), and news, increasingly at the service of sales departments, has forfeited its authority to represent the polity.


We need myths, not only of our ideal, and our average, but of our fallen extreme. Since the establishment of informed-consent rules in the 1970s, the golden age of social psychology is gone. No more Stanley Milgram’s proof that ordinary citizens will push the voltage to the red zone while the electrocuted actor screams—so long as a lab-coated tester is there to give the orders. No more Philip Zimbardo’s proof that fake guards will brutalize fake prisoners if you arbitrarily split Stanford students into two groups, lock them in a basement, and leave them to their own devices. No more Harold Garfinkel’s demonstrations that testers can drive strangers berserk if they stare at other riders on the elevator or if children refuse to recognize their parents. Today we are reliant on Elimidate, Punk’d, and Survivor. Watching reality television is like walking one long hallway of an unscrupulous and peculiarly indefatigable psychology department.

The first ideal-type of reality TV is the show of the pure event. Cops represents one end of its spectrum, the low-budget dating shows (Blind Date, Elimidate, Fifth Wheel, Xtreme Dating) the other. You discern patterns in each—the effect on the watchful viewer is of a patterned repetition of wholly singular encounters. In the endless scenes of arrests, traffic stops, drive-by warnings (“OK, you ain’t going to do it again”), domestic disturbances, and interviews with complainants (“Calm down, ma’am, just tell me what happened”), it becomes clear that justice, at the level of the arrest, has less to do than you might have thought with the code of law. Between cop and civilian, everything is determined by personality; each word is a step in a negotiation; the tools each side possesses seem arbitrary and confused, in the wheedling or vagueness of the suspect, the mock-authoritativeness and lack of information of the cop. So you make notes to your criminal self: never voluntarily submit to a search. But it doesn’t take long to realize that, in the situation, you wouldn’t remember all you’d learned watching Cops; politeness and hustling would take over. In the immediate interaction between two people, each staring into the other’s eyes and trying to persuade him toward escape or incrimination, drugged by fear when not hazy with narcotics, you see the hidden face-to-face interactions of your countrymen.

And on Blind Date and Xtreme Dating and Fifth Wheel, with wary daters eyeing each other over pasta dinners, leglessly drunk in a hundred indistinguishable neon dives and, afterwards, on the best dates, mumbling vulgar blandishments in hot tubs, you see that romance is not angelic recognition nor simple animal lust but a negotiation—the same as in the Cops arrest. The blind date and the traffic stop become on late-night TV the two paradigmatic experiences of American encounters between strangers. Homogenous America is instantly disproved by bizarre America. It is reassuring to watch this openness and fumbling. Finally you see without intermediary dramatization the landscape of tanning salons and restaurants and aikido studios in every corner of the country, the still-distinct accents but universalized, television-influenced behaviors, the dilemma of what to say and which personality to project, as if the social relation were being rebuilt, in a cutaway scale model of our society—a great televised Ark of a changing civilization—two by two.

So even though evidently all women look for “sense of humor” and all men want someone “I can have fun with,” even though all good girls say they are “wild” and all good boys avow that they are “players,” this has only an equivocal effect on individuals’ relentlessly erroneous attempts to approximate trends and manners learned from TV, which seems to be what’s really going on. Yoyoing modesty and immodesty (“I’m a bad girl. I mean, I’m mostly bad in bed”); frank talk about penis size and boob jobs but wildly variable estimates on the morality of kissing on a first date; shy clumsiness masked under pornographic aspirations (“Have you ever had a threesome?” “No, that’s more like, a goal of mine”)—this, the cameras prove, is the current American performing-reality. Everyone tries to play someone else on TV, but still feels so many tethering strings from the prosaic, deficient, and plain polite that conformity becomes chaotic and imitation idiosyncratic.


“Voyeurism” was never the right word for what it means to watch these shows. You feel some identification with the participants, and even more sympathy with the situation. “And if I were pulled over—and if I were set up on a blind date—how would I fare?” But primarily, and this is the more important thing to say about reality TV, there is always judgment. You can’t know the deeds your countrymen will do until you see them; and once these deeds are seen, you won’t fail to judge and retell them. Reality TV is related in this respect to the demimonde of The People’s Court, Divorce Court, Judge Hatchett,and Judge Judy. Classy critics hate these shows too, or claim to. I think that’s a mistake. The way in which all reality TV—and much of daytime TV—can be “real” across social classes is in its capacity for judgment. The “friends” on Friends were an ideological group, propagandists for a bland class of the rich in a sibling-incest sitcom. The show didn’t allow you to take their idiocy to task, nor ever to question the details of how they paid their rent or their hairdresser’s bill, or how they acted on the “outside.” If only Judge Judy could sit in judgment of them, once! If only Cops would break down their door and throw them against the wall! Monica, you ignorant Skeletor, eat a sandwich! Ross, you vainglorious paleontologist, read a book! You mortuary creep! Truly, the judge shows have a vengeful appeal: they gather every inept, chiseling, weaseling, self-focused sort of person you meet in your daily life and, counting on each one’s stupidity and vanity to get him up into the dock, they yell at him.

This is one way to come to terms with your fellow citizens. Much reality TV, by contrast, communicates a relative openness of judgment, though judgment is its one constant—and does so also by its wider identity of situation between the viewer and those before the cameras. (Nearly everybody has dated, and, from rich to poor, nearly everybody fears the police when driving and will call on them when threatened.) Reality TV’s judgment falls on “another oneself,” however much one retains the right to disown and ridicule this nitwitted fellow-citizen. Nowadays, at every level of our society, there is a hunger for judgment. Often this becomes summary judgment—not so much the wish to know the truth, but the brutal decisionism that would rather be wrong than stay in suspension. This is the will not to deliberate but to sentence. In the political realm, it has influenced the shape of the current disaster. Its soft manifestations own the therapeutic talk shows, in the sniffling and nose wiping of a Dr. Phil, where the expert is never at a loss. He will not say: “No, your situation is too messed up for me to advise you; I have a similar problem; think for yourself.” Whereas the cheapest and rawest reality TV offers you a chance to judge people like you, people who do lots of the same things you do. It is cheap, it is amoral, it has no veneer of virtue, it is widely censured and a guilty pleasure, and it can be more educational and truthful and American than most anything else, very suitable for our great republic.


Until, that is, one began to see what the capital-rich networks would make of it. For they got into the act, like dinosaurs in an inland sea, and they made the waters heave. They developed the grandiose second ideal-type of filmed reality, courtesy of bigger budgets and serial episodes: the show of the group microcosm.

The microcosms were large-scale endeavors, financed by FOX, MTV, NBC, ABC, CBS, and the WB. (The other shows had been cheaply made and served up to UHF and low-budget cable stations by syndication, or, like Cops, run in the early barebones years of FOX and retained.) MTV’s The Real World, which put teens in a group house with cameras, was the earliest and most incomplete example. The pun in its “real world” title meant both that you would see how non-actors interacted (initially fascinating) and that this was, for many of the children on the show, their first foray away from home (pretty boring, after the umpteenth homesick phone call). MTV’s goal was to make up a “generation,” not a society, as MTV is the most aggressive promoter of one version of youth as a wholesale replacement of adult life.

Subsequently the broadcast networks converted the dating “event” show into sagas of thirty suitors, peeling them away one by one until only the chosen bride or groom remained. Big Brother turned the house show, too, into a competition. An even more triumphant microcosm was Survivor—followed, in time, by The Amazing Race. The newer shows that defined the microcosmic reality and blended it with competition adopted the same basic forms of social discovery that had animated the birth of the English novel: the desert-island Robinsonade of Survivor, the at-the-ends-of-the-earth-bedragons imperialist travelogue and quest romance of The Amazing Race, even, perhaps, the sentimental seductions of The Bachelor, where so many willing Clarissas rode in limousines squealing to a manor house to hand their hearts to Lovelace.

Yet Survivor never took up the society-from-nothing isolation of the desert island, which had motivated the original Robinson Crusoe. The Amazing Race didn’t care about the Englishman-in-Lilliput foreignness of Swift or the chance meetings of picaresque or even the travelers’ tall tales in Hakluyt. The shows had no interest in starting civilization from scratch. Nor for that matter were they much interested in travel—on The Amazing Race, you glimpse the blurred locals out the windows of speeding cars. These shows were about the spectacularization of a microcosmic America—about the reduction of society to a cross-section of our countrymen—still so very American, never “going native.”

The shows put together sociable Americans, so they would have nothing left but their group interactions, their social negotiations, to keep them going. Nobody let them starve, nothing endangered them. Nominally structured as a contest of skill, skill mattered little and “alliances” much on Survivor. The sniping and soothing in couples and trios—forming and reforming, betraying and sticking together—were the main things of interest on that show and on The Amazing Race, where it was hard to tell if we were supposed to care, really, that one pair ran faster than another. How do Americans talk and how do they arrange things, in a completely minimal setting, a little like the office and a little like the home but not totally unlike a sequestered jury? So many of the contestants brought the workplace with them, and they were meant to, since they were identified at every subtitle of their names with their stateside jobs: Actor/Model, Computer Programmer, Fireman. This was our festival. Let’s see if the alliance can hold between the Stock Trader, the Carpenter, and the Actress. Who will emerge as the “Survivor”? Let’s race the Midget and her Cousin, so lovable, against the Bad Couple Who Should Not Marry. Let’s see who our true representatives are.

The structure of each of the shows that “voted people off the island,” requiring the microcosm to draw itself down each week, echoed, with static, the old idea of a republic of political equals, who despite unequal skills and endowments one by one would recuse themselves from activity to leave a single best representative behind to speak in public for their interests. If we truly all are equals in America, this would be a picture, in ideal form, of how we choose aldermen and selectmen and Congressmen—using our sovereignty to withdraw our sovereignty, that is to say, to focus it in the hands, for two or four years, of individuals who act for us. By this means the microcosm programs resembled political allegories.

And yet many of the reality shows of the microcosmic community were quite deliberately, self-consciously implanted, sometimes by the rules, sometimes by the informal instructions given to players, with an original sin. That sin was the will to power by trickery, the will to deception, which puts the power-mad ahead of the natural leader. And the players did not rebel—they accepted this, knowing it too well from home, from what they would call their “real life.” “That’s how you play the game,” each aspiring survivor explained, with the resignation of a trapped bear chewing off its leg, “you have to fool people, you can only be loyal to yourself.” They had the republican ideal in their hands, and didn’t use it. It got confused with the economic or Darwinian model of competition, in which anti-representative stratagems are justified because one wins in the defeat and eradication of all others to gain a single jackpot. This, too, was an aspect of the realness of “reality” for Americans: we knew we were witnessing republics of voting or shared excellence competing, or perhaps blending, with another force in our lives.


As deception and power-hunger are the sins built into the microcosm, so the fixed norm is the flaw introduced into shows of pure judgment. It produces the third ideal type of reality TV: the show of the industry standard.

It was latent in the grand-scale dating shows, these contests that brought in the single judge and red roses and arbitrary rules and an image of romantic love from somewhere in the minds of Hallmark: but who knows, maybe this was close enough to the values of dreamy romance to form some people’s preexisting reality. In American Idol, though, you see the strong beginning of the reality show of the third type. American Idol was the best, and the most insinuating, of the industry shows because it took one of the basic categories of common endeavor, that Rousseau loved well—a singing contest, the commonplace sibling of a beauty or dancing or athletic contest. Everyone sings, if only in the shower—and the footage of the worst contestants made clear that the contest did include all of us, that the equivalent of singing in the shower was being considered, too, on the way to the final idol. The show had “America” judge, by casting the final votes, en masse. Yet it used professional judges in the meantime, a panel of allegorical experts, Simon Cowell (rhymes with “scowl”; the Stern Judge; George III), Paula Abdul (the Universal Sexy Mommy; Betsy Ross), and Randy Jackson (the Spirit of Diversity). Allegorically, America would free itself from the tyranny of the English King, having learned his wisdom, pay due homage to its own diversity, and enjoy the independence to make its own choice—which the hands-tied Englishman’s production company would have to live with, and distribute to record stores. Poor George III! What one really learned was that, unlike a singing contest in the high school gym, the concern of the recording industry was not just, or no longer, whether someone could sing. It was whether a contestant was fitted to the industry, malleable enough to meet the norms of music marketing. The curtain was pulled away from the Great Oz, and the public invited to examine his cockpit and vote which lever or switch to pull next. As it turns out, it is really no less pleasant to choose a winner to suit the norms of music marketing, than to choose on individual talent. One was still choosing, and the idol would still be ours. An idol of the marketplace, to be sure, but still our representative American idol.

The major new successes of the past few years have taught (or pretended to teach) the norms of other industries. The Apprentice, a show in which one tries to learn skill in business, teaches the arbitrariness of contemporary success in relation to skill. The winners are conditioned to meet a certain kind of norm, not really familiar from anywhere else in life, which corresponds to “the values of business” as interpreted by Trump. America’s Next Top Model shows how a beauty contest ceases to be about beauty. The real fascination of the show is learning, first, how the norms of the fashion industry don’t correspond to ordinary ideas of beauty (you knew it abstractly, here’s proof!), but to requirements of the display of clothes and shilling for cosmetics; second, how the show will, in the name of these norms, seek something quite different in its contestants—a psychological adhesiveness, a willingness to be remade and obey. The Starlet suggests the distance between the norms of TV acting and the craft of acting—and yet again, in the name of “how it’s done in the industry,” which provides one kind of interest, the contestants are recast psychologically, which provides the other. And on it goes, with “how to become a chef” (Hell’s Kitchen) and “how to be a clothing designer’s minion” (The Cut), et cetera.1

All this is interesting and revealing in its way. But the final stage is all too familiar: that is, the flow back of norms justified by industry into norms for inner spaces—first the mind, which accepts insane instructions and modifications, then the spaces that have nothing to do with either public life or work, and should offer safety from their demands. I am thinking of the home and the integral body, underneath the skin.

For a final, baroque range of reality shows has emerged in the last two years: The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and, when these turned out to be slightly more than viewers could bear, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and its copycat shows. The Swan and Extreme Makeover also drew on the most basic of all spectacles-of-excellence, the beauty contest or “pageant”—which once formed a way of seeing or understanding the country, as in the Miss America contests (when you would root for your state while admiring the flowers of the other forty-nine). And the new shows advanced a new kind of norm by recreating it surgically, by literally rebuilding people’s faces and bodies to suit, not beauty, but a kind of televisual glamour. Ordinary unattractive people, given nose jobs, boob jobs, liposuction, lip collagen, tummy tucks, and chin pulls—plus fifty minutes of therapy—looked like wax mannequins when, alone and imprisoned in a Gothic mansion, the naturally lovely host pulled the velvet drapes back from the mirror, and the rebuilt women, inevitably, began to weep, shocked. Then the host spoke: “You’re crying because you’ve never seen yourself so beautiful. You’re crying because you’ve been transformed,” intoning these words until the weeping speechless victim nodded. If this looked like brainwashing, you hardly knew the horror of it until the camera cut to a boardroom of the delighted surgical experts who had done the work—each one of them equally off-kilter and monstrous because of surgical modifications made to his own face or teeth or eyes or hair. (Flashback to one of the famous Rod Serling-written Twilight Zone episodes, this one from 1960: an ordinary woman is called “ugly” and pressured into damaging facial surgery that we can’t understand—until the camera pulls back to show us that everyone in her world is hideously disfigured! Yee-ikes!)

The point of these shows was not just how people would be altered, but that they could be altered. As the Six Million Dollar Man introduction used to say, “We have the technology . . .” but what was needed was the rationale. When this transdermal insertion of the norm into average people came to seem suspect, the networks increasingly devoted episodes to already hideously ugly and disfigured people, so that the norm could be disguised as charity or medical necessity. But the greater success proved to be the subtle turn, with charitable aspect intact, to demolishing and rebuilding people’s homes rather than their faces, in the adjunct called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which supersized existing home-decorating reality shows like Trading Spaces (on which two neighbors agree to redecorate one room in each other’s home). Extreme Makeover would get at privacy in one way or another; if not through the body then through the private space that shelters it. A team of experts came in to wreck your shabby domicile and rebuild it. The dwellings that resulted were no longer homes, but theme houses; instead of luxuries, the designers filled rooms with stage sets keyed to their ten-minute assessments of the residents’ personalities: “Little Timmy wants to be a fireman, so we made his room look like it’s on fire!” As long as the homeowners were poor or handicapped enough, anything was a step up. The show has been an enormous hit.

Whatever can be done in the name of charity or medicine or health will allow the reinsertion of the norm into further spheres of privacy. Fox is said to be planning Who Wants to Live Forever?, a “program that predicts when participants will die and then helps them extend their lifespan through dieting, exercise, [and] breaking bad habits.” The circle is closed, and “reality” here no longer lets us observe our real life, but its modifications in the name of a statistical life to come. The private matters we can’t, or shouldn’t, see flow in to replace our public witnessing of each other. And the festival is no longer of ourselves, but of phantasms projected by industries of health, beauty, home, all industries requiring our obedience; worse than the monsters of drama, because they don’t admit their degree of fiction.


The reality of reality television is that it is the one place that, first, shows our fellow citizens to us and, then, shows that they have been changed by television. This reality is the unacknowledged truth that drama cannot, and will not, show you. A problem of dramatic television, separate from what the corrupt characters say and do, is that it shows people who live as if they were not being shaped by television. On this point it profoundly fails to capture our reality. (The novel, in contrast, was always obsessed with the way consciousness was shaped and ruined by reading novels.) And this is consistent with the way in which television, more than other media, has a willingness to do the work of shaping life, and subservience to advertising and industry, even when its creators do not understand what they’re up to. Drama says: this is harmless, fictional. In fact it pushes certain ways of life. But wherever industrial norms repenetrate the televised rendition of reality, they can directly push certain ways of life, no longer even needing to use the mediation of “harmless” fiction and drama.

One can sometimes fight corruption with corruption: Blind Date to counter Friends. So what in our television experience, against Extreme Makeover, will show the ways in which homes and faces cannot be remade? Who will make the reality to counter “reality”?

  1. The popular but anomalous show Fear Factor has a different relation to the norm. Fear Factor adds an outside rule to sport. All the sports we watch on TV (football, baseball, golf, tennis) were invented and enjoyed by participants before being transposed to the small screen for the benefit of spectators. Fear Factor seems in contrast to be a show of “sports” devised on behalf of spectators rather than participants. Its goal is the pleasure of the viewer. And its standard turns out to be a kind of norm no one would dare articulate or declare respectable—that television, playing the role here of the industry, makes spectators long to see the human body in postures and activities it would pain individuals to see in person. How could we have known that it’s pleasurable to watch chiseled hardbodies and women in bikinis be forced to eat cow spleen or writhe in boxes of slugs, and that these delights of sexual sadism could go along with the wash-you-clean thrills of spinning platforms, ladders hanging from helicopters, and speedboat draggings, which end with the contestants’ bodies hurled into rivers or lakes? 

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