TV: Reality Bites

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on WebMD

Why do we care who the “mole” is, or who the ultimate “survivor” will be? Why do we give a remote-control flip which couple will give into temptation, or which boy makes the band?

And do we really want to watch someone marry a millionaire?

In other words, why are we so hooked on reality television? Just so we won’t come across as uncool at the workplace water cooler? To get a vicarious thrill watching someone do something we would never do ourselves  like eat a rat or cheat on a spouse? Are we really just voyeurs?

The answer? All of the above, experts tell WebMD  and then some.

Reality TV shows like Survivor II, The Real World, Making the Band, Big Brother, The Mole, andTemptation Island have become so popular the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recently created two Emmy Award categories to recognize them.

“The popularity of these shows relates to peoples’ need for an adrenaline rush. Some people get a rush from violence or sex, and sometimes these reality shows have both,” says Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of Mommy I’m Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them.

Reality shows date back to chestnuts like Candid Camera, she points out, which was developed more than 50 years ago and used a hidden camera to capture the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary situations.

Today’s reality-based shows can be compared to the rubbernecking that occurs at a highway car wreck, Cantor says.

“It’s the same thing as slowing down when you see an accident,” she says. “You want to see it, yet you don’t want to see it. We are curious and drawn to the violent, the macabre, and the sexual.”

Adding to their attraction, she says, reality shows are much cheaper to produce than star-driven shows like ER or Friends.

So the shows can save TV studios big money  but can they cost their viewers psychologically?

Some of the shows  Cops, Rescue 911, and Unsolved Mysteries, for instance  can be scary for children, Cantor says.

“News and reality shows are always in the top 10 for scaring children, Even if the kids know that a lot of things on TV aren’t true, [they know] these things are true,” she says. And oftentimes, in the case ofUnsolved Mysteries, for instance, the host will point out that the murderer/robber/rapist is still on the loose.

“I don’t think these shows are harmful,” says Steve Brody, PhD, a psychologist in Cambria, Calif. Nevertheless, he adds, “We don’t need our noses rubbed in the seedy side of life. These things are not the norm and shouldn’t be reflected as if they are. For a certain population of people who are already on the edge, they can really have a negative impact.”

“I think a big part of the draw is a natural human tendency toward voyeurism, and what’s so different about these shows, compared to sitcoms or dramas, is that these people are not actors and you are seeing them in an unrehearsed, natural way,” says Kerry Sulkowicz, MD, a faculty member of the New York University Psychoanalytic Institute.

“There may also be a certain pleasure in seeing their discomfort, in watching them squirm,” he says. It’s the same thing that drives interest in Jerry Springer-style talk shows where people bare their deepest, darkest, and most deviant secrets.

And society’s fascination with the macabre didn’t start with When Animals Attack, points out psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD, co-director of the Parent Child Center in New York City

“Executions used to be public,” he says – and they may be again if Timothy McVeigh gets his way. McVeigh, 32, who is set to be executed May 16 for his role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, has asked for his death to be broadcast live on television.

“The public’s wishing to look at people’s private lives goes way, way back, ” Hoffman says. “These are all impulses we all have, but most of the time we keep them in check  and now it’s acceptable to reveal everything.

“We are living in a visually connected culture, so what would usually only happen in a small community is now happening worldwide,” he says. “The danger is that soon we are going to be living in 1984where our private lives will disappear, and people may wind up being the authors of their own loss of liberty.”

In Orwell’s futuristic novel, 1984, Big Brother and the Thought Police are almost omniscient and personal privacy is a relic of the past. Given the emergence of reality TV, web cams, the Human Genome Project, and other potential technological intrusions into our private lives, Hoffman says, it may well turn out that Orwell was just a few decades off.