The Real World?
Reality shows have been around since the beginning of television and show no signs of disappearing any time soon. The trouble with these offerings, other than frequent offensive and inappropriate content, is that very few actually reflect the world we liven in. Programs like Survivor, My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiancé, Fear Factor and The Bachelor create manufactured settings, depict extreme competitiveness and reward outrageously, immature behavior. Others, like The Swan or I Want to Look Like a High School Cheerleader Again convey worrisome underlying messages, unrealistic expectations and distorted reward systems.
More than anything, most reality television doesn't have much to do with actual reality, says Ray Richmond, TV critic and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. "It's one of the biggest misnomers and misleading forms in the business. It's about as real as a unicorn. Reality TV is just a new twist on an old genre called entertainment. It's just that this form uses amateurs and is constructed in the editing room," he says.
Ironically, many "reality" shows credit writers, some are even partially scripted, and most are heavily edited. Like the game shows of the 1950s, which proved to be rigged, these shows are guided far more by directors, executives and even advertisers than by a natural turn of events. By now, the average viewer is savvy to the fact that the juicy sound bite or outrageous statement is ultimately what makes final cut.
What's worse is that "viewer participation" shows like American Idol give people the false impression that they have an actual stake in whole process. Call a toll number to vote for your favorite fill-in-the-blank and you, too can make a difference. It's a clever trick to get viewers emotionally invested when, in fact, the winners are often carefully manipulated to the finish line.
While some reality TV seems like harmless fun, it's important to be wary of the genre when it comes to your kids. Boundaries that are drawn in the real world don't exist in houses where a camera follows someone into the bathroom. The passage of time is rarely depicted accurately, creating a skewed view of the artistic process in Top Design or the natural evolution of a loving relationship in Age of Love (hint, it doesn't happen in front of a production crew).
How can we as parents help kids distinguish the truth about reality TV?
According to Drea Perez, Acting General Manager of Discovery Kids Media and Vice President of Programming for Animal Planet, "The concept of reality shows must now be explained to kids. Now that the genre is so prevalent, there is an expectation that everyone may be acting for the cameras. So caution must be advised with the genre, as in all others," she says.
Language and sexuality are the obvious flags to look for when selecting shows for kids, but Dr. Keith Ablow, psychiatrist and author of the book Living the Truth stresses his concern over the notion that many reality shows glorify great unkindness and often leave the normal course of regular conflict — including remorse and empathy — on the editing room floor.
"With these shows, you start to erode people's sense of reality, especially with young people whose sense of self is still developing," says Ablow. "Kids find themselves slowly measuring their own existence against very dramatic and highly scripted shows and then try to make their own lives more exciting."
It seems hard to find an unwilling subject or someone who shies away from a camera, especially when fame can be found on just as easily on YouTube as on network television. According to the Learning and Skills Council in England, one in seven teenagers surveyed actually hoped to gain fame by appearing on reality television.
Of course, many of these shows can always be used as an example of how not to behave. Parents may cringe at the antics displayed on MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen, but discussing a show that depicts questionable behavior or situations is a good way to open a dialogue. Would you want your child to behave that way? Do you think this kind of behavior worked well for Britney, Paris or Lindsey? It's also important to point out the more ridiculous elements of the show. Are the people really fighting or just acting up for the cameras? What are the chances that reality show contestants are in any real danger?
If it's the inherent excitement or thrill of competition that draws your family to these types of shows, alternative choices with similar formats but without the manipulation are available. Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman is all about physical and mental challenges as kids compete for points and praise from the show's animated canine host. Similarly, Endurance is a Survivor-like program for kids that emphasizes trustworthiness and fair play over winning at all costs.
Shows such as Build it Bigger (formerly known as Extreme Engineering), Mythbusters, and How It's Made cover scientific processes that are often part of statewide standardized tests, exploring concepts such as simple machines, electric circuits, and trial and error. The information is covered in such an entertaining yet realistic, hands-on way. Shows such as Critter Quest are successful as fun and educational family fare. Others, like America's Funniest Videos or the Planet's Funniest Animals are just plain, goofy fun.
Whatever the topic, it never hurts to be informed. Even some animal and nature shows can be a little too realistic. Many parents flooded the Internet after a particularly emotional episode of Meerkat Manor in which two of the pups met an untimely end.
To that Perez replies, "We knew in advance that the third season of Meerkat Manor would be full of drama and sensitive issues including death. For this reason, we marketed the series to an older, more sophisticated audience, which is evident in our advertising campaigns ... We hope that parents who watch the series will make the decision for themselves whether the content is suitable for their children. Overall, parents will always be the gatekeepers and should screen shows prior to their kids no matter what the shows are."
It's important to remember that television, at its core, is a form of entertainment and many shows, especially those dubbed as "reality" will do whatever is necessary to garner viewers. If the ultimate goal is to teach our kids the realities of our world, we, as parents will do the job better than any TV show ever could.
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about TV and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.
Paying Attention in Primetime
Today's parents face unprecedented competition for influence in their children's lives - never has there been a more concerted effort at marketing to children. Families concerned as much about what their children are learning out of school as in, have difficult choices to make. If parents want their children to be thinking, literate citizens they will have to take a stand and be involved - as much after school as during.