I've been around television my entire married life (my Hubby is a TV engineer) and I understand ratings and the importance of keeping the viewers interested. Television's purpose is as a medium to sell advertisements. Anything else it may provide is a bonus: the creation of great characters, stories and emotional involvement is just an adjunct to the ads. Popularity means only an increase in what the network can charge for ad time. Of course, the people who make the shows try to provide those characters and stories, they really do create art sometimes. But, make no mistake - to the network that airs even those shows that transcend the medium, it's all about the ad rates.
The proliferation of networks that came with cable television in the 1980s expanded available ad time but it also spread the viewership across a much wider landscape of channels. This drove networks to find content that would attract viewers to their channel and away from everyone else. Reality TV became one way to do that.
Reality TV is not new to the medium - Candid Camera (which began in 1948) was an early pioneer and PBS became a refuge for "true life" stories - but reality
TV has exploded in the past two decades. Some cultural pundits believe that MTV began the race with its seminal Real World (based on a Dutch show called Nummer 28) which premiered in 1992 (I myself blame Real People). Despite that being open for argument, the 1990s marked the start of the reality TV avalanche. The strike by the Writer's Guild in 1988 also contributed - why have a scripted show when you could throw a bunch of people together in a house and roll camera? Now we have shows about everything from gold prospectors to pawn shop owners to swamp people. It seems almost anyone can get a show anymore (lookin' at you, Sarah Who).
This proliferation of shows has created an intense race for advertising dollars. And that has, in turn, led to wilder and wilder shows. Survivor, Fear Factor, Cops and even tabloid talk shows went into some crazy territory. We saw drunks being hauled to jail, people being horrible to one another, people eating stuff and doing things that many viewers found abhorrent. Yet the ratings - and with them, ad rates - were high. TV as a whole saw this as a signal to go even further. Add to this the pregnant pause (thank you, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) and reality TV has become a place to find excitement and competition beyond sports.
This leads me to think of a pair of stories written by Stephen King: The Long Walk and The Running Man. Both are set in a dystopian future and both involve televised competition.
In the near future, where America has become a police state, one hundred boys are selected to enter an annual contest where the winner will be awarded whatever he wants for the rest of his life. The game is simple - maintain a steady walking pace of four miles per hour without stopping. Three warnings, and you're out - permanentlyThe Walk isn't televised itself, but the news follows it every step of the way and spectators line the parts of the Walk that go through towns and cities. The news cameras turn away, though, if one of the boys is "removed" from the race. This is more to protect the dictator in charge than the viewing audience, the latter not being privy to the method of removing a boy from the Walk. The reader is left to assume that if they knew, the dictator might be seen in a bad light. But I wonder....
The Running Man, from the same collection of novellas as the previous story (The Bachman Books), sees this competition for money even further.
It is 2025 and reality TV has progressed to the point where people are willing to wager their lives in exchange for a chance at enormous wealth. Ben Richards is desperate - he needs money to treat his daughter's illness. His last chance is entering a game show called The Running Man where the objective is to elude police and specially trained trackers for a month. The reward is a cool billion dollars. The catch is that everyone else on the planet is watching and willing to turn him in for a reward.To my mind, this is dangerously close to what we are seeing right now. As it is, people are willing to do an awful lot for money. We have seen a few contestants on Survivor get severely injured or fall ill from pushing themselves. The producers are good about calling in their medics in such cases but they never edit these events out. Never. These do, admittedly, make for compelling viewing but one wonders, is it because viewers are seeing strength in the face of adversity or a near-fatal event? How much of it is schadenfreude or prurient interest?
So, how did a cooking competition get me onto this line of thought? Escalation. When producers think that they have to add more tension to a cooking show to make it more exciting, what is to stop them from doing this to any other reality show? Imagine Survivor with weapons. I shudder to think.
How far will we go? At what point do we say, "Enough!"? Will it take someone actually dying during one of these stunts or will that just be seen as a new goal for the competition shows? There are already many similarities between our society and the glory days of Rome. Reality TV - especially the competition-for-money kind - is our circus as much as snack foods are our bread. I hate to think that we will end up throwing people to the lions, either literally or figuratively.