Part Two: The Impact of Game Shows and the Modern Age
In part one of this essay we explored the impossibly pure imagery television initially presented to viewers, images that reflected the mores of a bygone America. We reviewed the impact on our culture presented by the popularization of color television and how seeing real conflict and tragedy in color shocked the sensibilities of our unprepared nation, and how that shock was expressed through several cutting edge (or “bleeding edge”) television shows beginning in the early 1970s. Finally, we explored how the landscape of television was affected by cable television, and how it continued to change to the point where it was showcasing the lack of restrictions imposed on it and the lack of self-restraint that was becoming prevalent in our nation throughout the 1990s.
Before addressing the roots of television’s change further, I must acknowledge a show called Married… with Children that was at once revolutionary and reviled, and ran from 1987 through 1997 on the Fox network. The show was a weekly celebration of crude, sexist, homophobic behavior, and it became the target of boycotts throughout its run, and deservedly so. Despite the longevity of the show, it did not have a true impact in television or society in that existing programs did not suddenly embrace and adopt the extremist nature of Married… with Children, and new shows that tried to copy its exceedingly lowbrow approach largely failed in short order. Of the shows to come later, only Family Guy, American Dad, and South Park succeeded in combining unbridled filth with longevity, and of the three only South Park had the redeeming presence of insightful social commentary as an counter to its otherwise foul nature. Given only the three programs listed above have matched the longevity and the crudeness of Married… with Children since 1987, the shows are exposed as programs that did not have a great or lasting impact on television.
Shows like Married… with Children and its ilk were not part of the change in television programming that would result in the television landscape we have today. Instead, I believe the change was spurred by the metamorphosis of the game show genre. Though game shows had existed for decades and survived the Quiz Show Scandal of the 1950s, the majority of them remained divided into two unofficial categories: primarily intellectual competition and primarily physical competition. Do note that there is a third unofficial category, hybrid competition, the elements of which are comprised of the previous two. Primarily intellectual competition included shows such as Password, To Tell the Truth, and Concentration — the kind of presentations classically referred to as “quiz shows”. Even a show such as Let’s Make a Deal fell into this category as what passed for competition was basically a series of judgment calls made by contestants. Conversely, primarily physical competition included shows such as Beat the Clock and Bowling for Dollars wherein competition consisted almost entirely of physically overcoming challenges. Complementing the two were hybrid game shows that, by design, just about evenly combined elements of physical and intellectual competition, making for such television favorites as Win, Lose or Draw and Truth or Consequences.
As time progressed, the rigid nature of shows such as Twenty-One and Jeopardy gave way to freewheeling displays of hot bloodedness typified by such racy fare as The Newlywed Game and Match Game. Later, the restrictive, standardized, studio-bound nature of both game shows and standard programming gave way to nearly unrestrained activity in real places, and so “reality television” was innovated. Yes, “innovated”.
The actual invention of reality television can be attributed to the CBS television network where, in 1948, Allen Funt’s Candid Camera began, and to a show called Wanted (October 1955 – January 1956) on which host Walter McGrew reviewed the crimes of fugitives and interviewed members of law enforcement working on the cases. Later, in 1973, PBS debuted An American Family, an unprecedented documentary series featuring members of the Loud family. The Louds opened up their home and lives for seven months to producer Craig Gilbert, who shot 300 hours of footage. Of that 300 hours, only 12 were televised. Shown to some 10 million viewers were both the marital breakup of Bill and Pat Loud and the coming-out of their son, Lance. Eleven years later, reality television changed its focus from the everyman per-episode to the unprecedented combination of in-depth celebrity profiling and rotating subjects that was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, complete with host Robin Leach’s high-energy delivery. Such are the origins of reality television, but its innovation–its phenomenal change into a true craze–should be credited to modern game show variants such as Survivor and Big Brother.3
As the genre of reality television gained popularity in the late 90s, and while television–especially cable television–continued to bring graphic color imagery to Americans, the television executives decided that reality wasn’t good enough. In their painfully finite wisdom (or lack thereof) they created a new trend in television programming, a growing movement away from both scripted fare and reality television. What they spawned was something scripted and seemingly real, spontaneous and surreal, and always mean-spirited — the noxious waste of transmission power I call “Mean TV”.
“Mean TV” is, to me, exemplified in the cruelty of past shows such as Joe Schmo, Superstar USA, Joe Millionaire and others of their kind — shows that offer the humiliation of others as entertainment for the masses. Those poor souls appearing on “Mean TV” were intentionally made unaware of the duplicity forming the basis of the shows, and as they reacted to situations as based upon their false perceptions of a sincere contest, the viewing public was expected to laugh as the victimized innocents were played for suckers on a grand scale.
Perhaps I’m among the minority of viewers, but I, for one, didn’t want “Mean TV.” However, it seems that millions wanted just such a juvenile form of “entertainment,” yet I wonder if it actually deserved to be classified as such. If entertainment is found when the class bully beats the daylights out of some defenseless, bookish child, then “Mean TV” could well be considered true entertainment. However, when it is considered that the class bully has all the muscle, and hence, all the control over the bookish child, then “Mean TV” failed as entertainment and was exposed as nothing more than displays of executive power run amok over those luckless contestants made unaware of their humiliation and rendered unable to save themselves from duplicitous higher powers. Maybe it wasn’t “Mean TV” after all. Maybe it should’ve been called “Bully TV,” or better yet, maybe it should’ve been called just plain old “bull”.
The age of such fare is now in the rear-view mirror, fortunately. What lays before us is a varied, yet morally vacant and creatively challenged television landscape of faux romance (The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Gigolos, Match Made in Heaven); the blatant exploitation of the LGBTQ market (RuPaul’s Drag Race, I Am Cait, Gaycation); man versus nature (Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Yukon Men, Life Below Zero, Bering Sea Gold and featuring Naked and Afraid as the sole entry in the “man versus nature au naturel” sub-category); and an assortment of celebrity lifestyle exhibitions (Mary Mary, Chrisley Knows Best, Donnie Loves Jenny, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Rich Kids of Beverly Hills).4 There are dozens more, of course, but to keep things manageable I’ll stick with the preceding as my list of programs that represent the current, deplorable state of television.
None of the above shows actually convey any useful information to the viewer. There are no transformations of the primary subjects in the literary sense, no story arcs, no lessons to be learned, no relevant variations of content. Instead, the daily activities of the subjects on each program form the per-episode content for every entry in each show. However, unlike An American Family, current reality shows present the activities of the participants within a given framework. That is, the viewer is allowed a view of the subject’s life as pertains to limited aspects of their life. The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Gigolos, and Match Made in Heaven feature dating, but under controlled circumstances; RuPaul’s Drag Race is a competition among transvestites; I Am Cait focuses on the trials and tribulations of a famous person person newly revealed to be transgender and who has yet to master all aspects of that orientation; and Gaycation focuses on what it means to be a member of the LGBTQ community in different countries, meaning it’s framework is how things differ more than it is a long-term exploration of any given subject. Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Yukon Men, Life Below Zero, Bering Sea Gold, and Naked and Afraid are all framed by what it takes to make a living (or survive) within harsh environments. Mary Mary, Chrisley Knows Best, Donnie Loves Jenny, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Rich Kids of Beverly Hills are within the framework of fortune and celebrity, and what it takes to deal with those two aspects from within the family unit and from without. Admittedly, the celebrity lifestyle exhibitions possess frameworks that appear to be wider than most others, but in truth they are still subject to the whims of producers who keep the focus narrowed to certain moments and events in order to capitalize on the non-standard aspects of each subject’s life.
America, we are now little more than authorized “Peeping Toms,” and I say that with great distaste in my mouth. A Peeping Tom’s reward from gazing into another person’s private living space is a sick rush stemming from the successful violation of the privacy of their unwary subject. While current reality television is based on the full awareness and cooperation of those being recorded in largely controlled situations, the viewer is still captivated by the sights and sounds presented to them in a manner that is best described as voyeuristic in nature. We watch, the subject knows we are watching, yet we are drawn into the carefully-presented fabric of their lives nevertheless. In allowing ourselves to be so sucked in, we willingly surrender any hope of receiving something useful in return for the time spent watching. Instead, we stare at our screens knowing there will be no substantive change exhibited by the subjects, no overarching story, no useful information relayed, and absolutely no deviation from established frameworks. We are but puppets now, seemingly as brainless, empty, and inanimate as “Kukla” or “Ollie” of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame, with the hands of reality show producers up our backsides, filling our hollow forms and moving us as they see fit.
I wish I could end this on a brighter note, but I must be truthful and declare that today’s American television is dominated by reality shows that are essentially worthless. In days past the criteria for having a show was something far more than, “Look at my life because I’m famous,” or “Look at my life because it’s so unlike yours,” but such ephemeral justifications for existence are now sufficient. Yes, television of the past initially offered a false view of our nation and the world, but it also contained elements that engaged the mind of the viewer and spurred anything and everything from discussion and debate to predicting how the next entry of a series would play out. Moreover, as time progressed television presented views of existence that were more and more in accordance with actuality. So while we certainly continue to have shows that spur discourse and plot analysis, the sheer prevalence of reality shows reveals television’s overall lack of creativity, intelligence, and general relevance.
That’s it for my take on television, people. From the pristine falsehood of the black-and-white era to the muddied falsehood of the modern color era, much has changed about it, but the seemingly eternal debate as to whether or not it has actually improved rages on, and will likely do so for some time. With a modicum of luck, generous doses of creativity, and respect for the intelligence of viewers, the future of television may yet be a bright one.
3.Beth Rowen. Infoplease: History of Reality TV.
Accessed August 20, 2016 at 9:00 PM.
4.Andy Dehnart. Reality Blurred: Spring 2016 reality shows schedule and guide.
Accessed August 20, 2016 at 9:20 PM.