Realities of reality TV put audience in the spotlight

In this age of cynicism, these shows give us hope that the underdog will be redeemed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 3:55am

Why? Why would anyone in her right mind put herself through something like this? It's a question I can't help asking myself while watching the heroines of reality shows swearing, crying, confessing and despairing across the screen of my television - whether they are the Bride Wannabes or the Nowhere Girls trying to break free from the cocoon of their dismal existence.

What satisfaction can there be in putting one's physical and character flaws on display? Why subject oneself to the public lynching of merciless media scrutiny and ridicule online?

Wise men say beauty and folly keep frequent company; so do money and folly - but these shows are popular among television producers and executives because they can be made on the cheap. It is, I believe, the promise of sudden fame that lures participants. For these people, being seen on television gives them a sense of self-importance, perhaps even self-fulfilment. The attention may be short-lived and spiteful. But, for as long as it lasts, it's also intense, flattering and therefore exhilarating.

About 50 years ago, Andy Warhol contemplated a future in which everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. That has still not happened. Despite countless overnight YouTube sensations, not everyone gets the chance to be the talk of the town - or the joke of the town. But the blurring of distinction between fame and notoriety is certainly one of the hallmarks of the celebrity culture. Being seen on television, recognised in the street and taken apart in chat rooms may not be anything remotely resembling what were once quaintly referred to as "accomplishments". But it's a sort of fame anyway.

In his hilarious new book Arts & Entertainments, American novelist Christopher Beha offers a provocative theory on why people - participants or viewers - are fixated on reality shows. Beha says that fame, even if it is just notoriety in disguise, "promises all we used to ask from religion and more, a way to give meanings to lives littered with disappointments large and small, along with a potential exit from a desperate cul-de-sac".

That may be true. But I guess at least part of the enduring appeal of reality television has to do with the medium's perceived redemptive and transforming power. In this age of cynicism, we still hold on to the belief that when television brings to light the harsh realities of life, things will change for the better.

No one understands this psychology better than the producers of reality shows, which are almost always about the triumph of the underdogs. Reality television is more television than reality. And television is - to use a phrase borrowed from the late American author and Nobel laureate John Updike - "a vast conspiracy to make us happy".

"The audience gives us free will but it expects us to use that freedom in a way that pleases it," says the reality show producer in Arts & Entertainments. "If we don't, we are banished to hell."

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic