The shift in television programming

Ryan deBiase

An extremely contrived, semi-dysfunctional family steps onto the soundstage. The youngest daughter gets into an argument with dad over her new punky boyfriend. The live studio audience erupts with laughter at each predictable joke. A poignant moment between daughter and dad evokes a heartfelt, if not forced, “awwww” from the crowd. End show, roll credits.

On another network, a camera crew follows police officers on their nightly patrols. The audience at home becomes captivated by shakily chasing delinquents (poor people) through back alleys and into Dumpsters or doghouses. These criminals will end up only in the backseat of the cruiser, with a spotlight and camera in their face. For entertainment’s sake, they sputter some indiscernible fragments on their capture. Over the end credits, Officer Cornfed provides a monologue on what keeps him going from day to day.

These two examples are meant to illustrate the dichotomy between produced television and reality television. Throughout the ’90s, these formulae were easy to distinguish. Regular TV appeared overly produced and overly dramatic; reality TV was always shaky and low-budget.

Simply, TV looked fake while reality TV looked real.

By the turn of the 21st century, television audiences became increasingly saturated with both types of programming. They were no longer satisfied with watching poor people being arrested or Joe Familyman’s petty troubles. They wanted innovative programming and sensationalist presentation.

As such, television shifted. The two types of programming have switched roles. TV is appearing more as slices of life, no longer a dramatized caricature of idealized American life. Simultaneously, reality TV has shed its real life aesthetic and has gone toward the realm of utter lunacy.

Take, for instance, a show like NBC’s “The Office.” Shot in a documentary-style format, the show features actors portraying (quite believably) everyday office workers. Each episode incorporates interviews and a basic plot pertaining to a day at the office. This fictionalized account of American life is enthralling. The show appears very low-budget, as if it’s emulating a documentary, with intrusive camera and audio work. “The Office” is an example of regular TV copying, if not mocking, reality TV.

Inversely, reality TV is becoming overly produced and overly dramatic. MTV’s “Laguna Beach” touts itself as the “real-life ‘O.C.'” That a reality show must emphasize it is, in fact, “real life,” is not promising. The show features rich boys and girls from Southern California embarking on over-the-top dramatic situations. Obviously, being rich is hard. The plot points seem contrived, as if there’s a TV writer behind it. One would think reality TV would not need writers, as it is supposed to be real life.

This type of reality programming does not desire to present reality; instead it hopes to convince the audience that it is what real life looks like. With a camera shoved in someone’s face, he or she is an instant celebrity. This is the ultimate goal of reality TV – to make each pretty-faced rich boy or girl look like a star. And audiences eat it up.

Still, shows like “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are entertaining. It seems television will always need the dichotomy of big-budget production versus low-budget reality. There was a time when the difference was easily discernible, when TV was a big, fake, happy family, and reality TV was all poor people in cop cars.

Contact ALL correspondent Ryan deBiase at [email protected].