On the TLC channel, you can watch a woman drinking her own urine and a man making love to his car.
On A&E, you can watch hoarders living in feces-ridden, roach-infested homes while their children plead for them to get help.
On truTV, you can watch people desperate for cash selling their possessions on “Hardcore Pawn” — and watch the owners of the pawn shop call each other a string of obscenities when they’re not doing it to customers.
After Sept. 11, 2001, experts in the entertainment industry were predicting the death of reality TV in favor of more uplifting, positive programming. The events of that day were so horrific, it was assumed that viewers would eschew the backstabbing, name-calling, masochistic themes that had proliferated television in favor of more thought-provoking subject matter.
Reality shows are not only more plentiful than they were in 2001, they’re more sensationalistic, appealing to the lowest common denominator. It was one thing to watch criminals being busted on “Cops” or contestants on “Fear Factor” and “Survivor” eat bugs and cow brains — one could at least argue in both instances that the subjects brought it on themselves by committing crimes in the former or by competing for a massive payout in the latter.
Now we’re watching everyday people dealing with deeply personal issues, from teen pregnancy and drug addiction to mental disorders and divorce, all on camera for others’ amusement. As we become inured to a certain type of reality TV — as the shocking becomes commonplace, even boring — the envelope is pushed ever further to drive ratings up.
Is this what we’ve been reduced to? A society of voyeurs that revel in the misery of others? Does it make us feel better about ourselves — thank God we don’t live like that, we’re not that stupid, we have more self-control?
It could never happen to us. Right?
One could argue that these shows help people deal with their disorders by giving them professional help. One could also argue that, hey, they agreed to be on camera, and they likely received payment to boot.
But at what cost? Now that they’ve aired their dirty laundry in the most public of forums, how will that affect the rest of their lives, their relationships, their careers? What about their children, who as minors have no say in the matter? What do they think when they watch the show and hear people talking behind their backs in one-on-one interviews?
This isn’t “Candid Camera” or “Real People” or even “The Real World.” This is a freak show. The only difference is that instead of paying to watch a sideshow attraction at a carnival, we’re paying a cable company to have it broadcast into our homes.
But because reality shows are cheap to make, it’s unlikely that they’re going to go away soon. At least, unless we’re willing to avert our eyes and say, “Enough.”
I’d like to know what you think. Do you think reality TV has gone too far? Or do you think I’m over-reacting?
Email me at the address below, and I’ll feature your reactions in a future column.
Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or at: