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Culture

The Rise of Voyeur Television

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October 4th, 2009

The dog days of summer used to be dead time for the major television networks. For years, programming executives had assumed most people would rather be out in the yard or the pool than watching endless reruns.

But the summer of 2000 has been different. Networks are using a new approach to create programs that get people to put down their lawn darts and gardening tools, head for their family rooms, and glue themselves to their sets night after night.

The new recipe the networks have been using for megasuccessful shows like “Survivor” goes something like this:

  • Find a group of ordinary, non-celebrity folk
  • Blend under pressure
  • Heat with high-intensity camera lights
  • Seduce all of America to tune in by promising arguments, fights, and even glimpses of naked flesh
  • And voilà! Within a few weeks you’ve got an overdone media phenomenon.

“Something strange is happening in television,” said the cover story in the June 26 issue of Time magazine. “The rise of VTV, or voyeur television.”

More than 23 million people—an unseasonably large viewer turnout—were watching “Survivor” in June, according to the article. Regis Philbin—host of the formerly dominant “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”—was chagrined.

The jury’s still out as to whether these “reality-based” shows are part of a significant new trend or merely another short-lived blip on the ever-changing pop culture radar screen—after all, MTV has been ahead of the pack for years with “The Real World” and “Road Rules.”

Now we have “Big Brother”—CBS’s second reality-based show that aired right after “Survivor”—which features 10 strangers living together and arguing in a camera-equipped house five nights every week; the WB’s “Blind Date,” which tracks the shenanigans of two strangers out on the town; “1900 House,” a PBS show in which a modern-day family agrees to live in a house exactly like people did in 1900 (i.e., no electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating). And don’t forget “Making the Band,” a show about the formation of a boy pop group, and “American High” (see page 13). There’s even a reality-based show about reality-based shows: The Mr. Showbiz Web site (www.mrshowbiz.com) turned the webcams on itself this summer with “Little Sister,” a show that monitored two Mr. Showbiz staffers discussing these voyeuristic TV programs.

What It All Means
For its part, CBS is banking on more than a blip—it’s already holding tryouts for a new version of “Survivor” to be set in the Australian outback.

And media watchers (the people who get paid to watch TV and do other stuff normal folks do for kicks) also think something might be up. Here are a few of the reigning theories about the current fascination about voyeur TV shows that make instant celebrities out of regular ol’ people:

1. A Confessional Age. Author Frank McCourt struck pay dirt with his best-selling 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes—which also kicked off the current rage of confessional memoirs. But people have been spilling their guts on more than a dozen daytime TV shows as well, from the upbeat and relatively sedate “Oprah” to the unapologetically sleazy “Jerry Springer Show.” As one analyst put it, we live in an age of “mass loquacity.”

2. The Webcam Revolution. First came the Internet. Next came personal home pages on the ’Net, which allowed every Joe and Josephine to post personal photos, biographies of pets, and other marginalia so anyone with a modem and a video display terminal could see. Now millions of Internet users own webcams—little, inexpensive electronic seeing eyes that can broadcast snapshots of daily life in dorm rooms, rec rooms, and bedrooms to computers around the world. As it is, programs like “Big Brother”—which has its own Web site—are little more than carefully-edited (and possibly even carefully-choreographed) versions of this webcam cornucopia.

3. Postmodern Experience. Networks are desperately interested in attracting younger viewers, many of whom find television’s traditional sitcom formulas boring and would rather spend time on the Internet or at Starbuck’s. So these new voyeuristic shows, which offer at least the illusion of real-life spontaneity, appeal to this postmodern hunger for unmediated experience.

4. The Boob Theory. This doesn’t refer to breasts (although the “sex sells” mantra does work wonders on “reality-based” TV shows, with all the romantic entanglements going among cast members). Rather, this theory—which has been trotted about ever since the dawn of the television age—goes like this: People who watch TV are basically big, lazy apes who’ll watch just about anything the flickering box gives them. The dumber, the better—just as long as these apes believe it’s new, entertaining, or exciting. Or, at the very least, if it’ll relieve their simple minds from the heavy responsibilities of dealing with their lives for 30 to 60 minutes at a time.

How to Make It Work for You
Maybe you have theories of your own. Or perhaps you think the whole craze isn’t even worth considering.

On a moral level you may be right. But on a cultural level, shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” are important for at least one simple reason: Everybody is talking about them—which makes them the temporary lingua franca of our increasingly fragmented world. My bet is that such shows are destined for the pop culture ash heap. But for now anyway, VTV is one thing that millions of Americans have in common, whether or not they actually watch it (or admit to watching it).

Your students—part of the postmodern crowd these voyeuristic programs are trying to reach—have likely formed their own opinions about these shows already. You might consider discussing issues these shows raise, such as:

  • What would you allow (or not allow) TV cameras to film you doing?
  • What if they offered you $500,000?

Another interesting illustration might come from a youth group video night featuring the movie EdTV, a funny, insightful 1998 film that suffered the misfortune of being released about the same time as Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show.

Both movies do focus on our insatiable appetite for reality-based programming and the impact this appetite has on the people who’re the objects of their hunger. But unlike The Truman Show—which focuses on a man who’s televised without his knowledge or permission—EdTV features Matthew McConaughey as a hapless fool who agrees to let his life be filmed and broadcast 24 hours a day. As we watch the film, we see not only his privacy but also his sense of personal identity being eaten away by the corrosive effects of nonstop celebrity.

Even more important, the film lets us experience a programmer’s-eye-view of the various ways people on such shows can be coaxed and coached into altering their behavior, thus guaranteeing more viewers and higher ratings and revealing the utter and pathetic phoniness of the entire “reality television” genre.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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