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‘Reality show’ versus the ‘reality of life’

As a kid, I always looked forward to this time of year. The beginning of September brings the waning days of the Minnesota State Fair—one last chance to wolf down a corndog before going on a ride that will try to reclaim it. By September, the worst heat of summer is past but the cold of winter hasn’t yet arrived. And while few young people would admit it, even the return of school can be a welcome change from unstructured days that have begun to teeter on the brink of tedium.

September also meant the debut of the new television season—a bigger deal in an age of three television networks and no DVRs. Would scheduling strategies force us to abandon one program in favor of another? How would we choose between similar programs? Should we watch the creepy antics of “The Munsters” or “The Addams Family?” Would we follow the brave space explorers of “Lost in Space” or “Star Trek?”

Today, there’s still technically a new fall season for television but programs debut year-round, so our taste for something new can be constantly satisfied. With DVRs and streaming video, television has become an all-you-can-eat buffet of choices, limited only by your free time.

Some things haven’t changed. Batman is back, but in the form of the angst-ridden “Gotham” rather than the campy Adam West. “Hawaii Five-O” is back in a new incarnation. “Dark Shadows” is still gone, but there are vampires in prime time, sharing the schedule with doctors and lawyers, cops and detectives.

Even “Candid Camera” is back. I recently watched a bit where people thought they were interviewing for a part on a new reality show. It was both amusing and horrifying to see how far people would go in their quest for our society’s ultimate validation: being on television. Would they fight with a family member? Sure. Throw things? Why not. Disrobe on camera? No problem. If there was a line would-be contestants were unwilling to cross, host Peter Funt seemed unable to find it.

Reality television will consume more than a dozen hours of weekly network programming this fall. Hopeful contestants are eagerly awaiting an opportunity to be told on national television that they can’t dance, sing or cook. Others will be sent to Nicaragua to see if they can be a “Survivor” (something that must be amusing to the Nicaraguans who have survived there for millennia).

Large Americans will work to become slightly smaller Americans as they compete for the honor of being called “The Biggest Loser” (really, just agreeing to be on the show makes somebody a strong candidate for that title). On “Utopia,” 15 contestants will try to create an ideal society (a task made more difficult by casting directors who realize that conflict draws more viewers than harmony).

Why is there so much reality TV? Economics plays a major role. Reality TV shows don’t need so many costly writers, with their carefully crafted words and families to feed. They also don’t need casts of stars—just regular folks who dream of being on television. Reality TV is made possible by the unending supply of people who are willing to publicly humiliate themselves to get their 15 minutes of fame.

Why are people so eager to be on television? Maybe it’s a bid for immortality. Faith offers the promise of eternal life, and in our hearts we know that we were made for more than the 70 or so years we’re allotted here on earth. Life’s brevity inspires us to find ways to leave our mark on the world.

That viral video or reality show appearance may be the thing that outlasts us. But raising children, writing books, planting trees, founding companies, filling the lives of those around us with love and grace—these are all better ways to say “I was here!”

How will you be remembered? It’s not too late to audition for a reality show, but better still, you could make the most of the actual reality that surrounds you each day. So wolf down that corndog and hang on for the ride that is your life. It’s time to walk away from tedium and make the most of each beautiful day you have left.

Doug Trouten



— by Dr. Doug Trouten

Trouten is a professor of communications at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.