Roxanne Tellier: Reality Bites

rox photo 1It’s been said that one should never talk about religion, politics, sex, or money in polite company. I’d like to add another category – Reality TV. And by the way – is there such a thing as ‘polite company’ any more? The mere existence of reality television would seem to beg the question.

After all, we’ve only to watch a few hours of telly to see that the world is a smorgasbord of interests hosted and voiced by the famous, infamous, and wannabe famous. No subject is left unscrutinized; there is truly something for even the most obscure interest, obsession or fantasy.

rox photo 2And there’s always someone taking offense at the very existence of any show that doesn’t meet their own personal criteria.

There are shows that make dating into a battle to win the contest, not cement a loving bond. New ‘on the job’ series glorify everyone from the company’s CEO to the janitor, in the office or on the Alaskan Highway. We can perch on the edge of our seats, and let our prying eyes glory on the miseries of humans who hoard, overeat, under eat, take too much of a legal or illegal substance, or simply live in a rox photo 3manner to which we feel superior. Honey Boo Boo and her family, Sookie on Jersey Shore, the Kardashians, or anyone on the ubiquitous  Real Housewives shows –  all of these previously unknown characters become as real to us as our neighbor. But these are people we can make fun of, and that we can quote around the real or virtual water cooler. We’re not laughing with them – we’re laughing at them, cruelly and with as little shame as they themselves exhibit.

Rox photo 4In the genre known as reality/competition/game shows – the talent contests, the Survivor franchise, Big Brother, Celebrity Apprentice – the contestants all vie for a prize, while having to live and/or work closely together for a stipulated amount of time. They have to complete tasks or perform artistically, and then be judged on their competency, all the while needing to showcase their personalities so that the viewing audience will root for them, with their remote controls and Internet tweets. And viewers flock to find their favorites, often based not so much on ability or talent, but also on the ‘back story’ that has its roots in such early television programs as “Queen for A Day,” where the ‘winner’ of the show was actually – The Biggest Loser.

It’s Marketing 101 – don’t ask the customer if they want to buy; show them two items and ask them to make a choice. Suddenly the customer is part of the action; he or she now feels compelled to prove they can make the right choice, the choice that is best for them. And the trap slams shut, with the customer paying for the privilege of buying, or buying into, something which they may never have wanted in the first place.

Despite the fact that the shows are heavily edited to skew audience preference, the audience feels involved in decisions, and barely feels their brains being manipulated with the skill of a master magician. It’s called “Frankenbiting,” a term coined by program consultant Todd Sharpe, to describe the process of slicing and dicing available clips to create the image necessary. The audience never feels a thing; they’re cheering or jeering, throwing things at the television set, burning up the Internet with pleas or invective, and screaming for more! More! More!

The contestants, as well, enjoy a certain amount of fame, even if only for a short while. The attention is heady, and Jane or Joe Smith may go back to Smalltown, USA with a new crop of fans, even if they are unsuccessful in their attempts. A loser can be a winner if they’ve tickled the fancy of the viewing public. There’s yet another mineable genre – what happens to the Rox photo5overly talkative, emotional or combatant contestant when their days on screen are numbered? Let’s follow them around with this camera and see!

Don’t get me wrong – I recap both Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice for an entertainment website and despite a desire to cast only a journalistic eye on the programs, I get suckered into the exact same emotional whirlpool as the next viewer. I whoop and holler at the screen, read other writers reviews, and generally fall for the skillful editing without which reality television could not exist.

Rox photo 6I’ve even been the ‘talent’ on a self-improvement reality show called Renovate My Wardrobe, which was a Canadian series hosted by Glen Peloso and Peter Papapetrou in 2005. For three days, my bedroom was sealed away from prying eyes, as Glen worked his magic on not only my wardrobe, but the room itself, building in wall to wall mirrored closets, and adding the shelving and storage areas needed to hold my almost 2000 pounds of clothing.

Meanwhile, Peter was dancing me around the city, introducing me to store owners, hairdressers and makeup artists, slicing and dicing a few questionable outfits into more presentable form, and choosing exquisite items to add to what would be the crowning moment – the reveal.

For three days, my home, my clothing, and my image were scrutinized, updated and improved. I was consulted about my tastes, pampered and generally made to feel very important indeed. I enjoyed every minute of the experience, and many people recognized and greeted me as I went about my daily routine, based on that one, small bit of exposure.

Rox phto 7I can only begin to imagine what a shock is in store for those who are chosen to appear on any of the large American reality competition series. They’ve been watched, and judged, without their knowledge, fairly or unfairly, by millions of viewers around the world. Their lives will never be the same, for good or ill. Some will wish they’d never agreed to participate, while others will Rox photo 8discover that a sip of fame has left them thirsty for much more. Fame and notoriety are invisible but heavy burdens, and worse, wield a double edged sword. You’ll get attention, alright, whether you want it or not, and probably when you were most hoping to go unobserved.

Rox photo 9Every season, the successful franchises reboot, and a new crop of reality shows comes along to dissect the current manias.

There will be another wave of unknowns stumbling into the spotlight, hoping to be the next Kardashian.

Could we be nearing the moment when literally every man, woman and child on the planet gets their 15 minutes of fame? And will history look back at this moment in time, and proclaim it the beginning of the end of North American civilization?   Now that’s the reality show I’ll be watching …


Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

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DBAWIS ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king – and that was just yesterday’s to do list. Tomorrow she starts on the letter Q.  

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