The Ideology of Reality TV

Ancient Greek philosophers rarely enter the discourse when the subject turns to reality TV, but Plato’s most famous and influential literary accomplishments does have a place in the commentary. Since Plato warned in The Republic that imitative poetry is potentially a devastating danger to society to the extent that it could cause the whole thing to come crumbling down, those looking for quick and easy answers have rushed to blame the entertainment industry for the multitude of problems inherent in society. In recent years, the blame for the antisocial behavior of individuals—often violent behavior—has shifted from the media in general to specific movies, songs and television shows. Instead of blaming the ridiculously easy access that children have to guns in this country, Marilyn Manson songs were plucked out as the real reason behind the bloodshed at Columbine; and rap music has consistently been blamed for gang violence. While citing individual circumstances like these verges on outright hysteria, there can also be no doubt that Plato was ahead of his time in perceiving that the masses could be affected over the long term by certain types of entertainment.

Anyone who doesn’t think that the images broadcast to Americans twenty-four hours a day over the airwaves need only ask why companies would be willing to pay millions of dollars for the right to broadcast a thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl. You can bet they are intimately familiar with the power of television if they are willing to spend that kind of money. American industry doesn’t engage in wasteful spending unless it’s to pay for million dollar anniversary parties for CEOs and their wive; they make sure every dollar that goes out brings in at least two. Shaping the minds of viewers doesn’t end with commercials, however. All television shows engage in ideological teaching and reality TV is no different; in fact, it’s more egregious than most.

“Reality television” is reinforcing several ideologically unsound messages that are molding the minds of its young fans.  These messages would make any Republican proud.  Among the dangerous messages that reality TV sends out are those regarding the vital—yet misguided—importance of competition, how society continues to stress the value of image over ability, and how education is becoming more and more of an obsolete factor in whether one is successful or not.  

Reality television promotes the old belief that competition is the key to success in a capitalist economy when in fact big business abhors competition. There isn’t a business in American that doesn’t want to drive its competitors into the ground and become a monopoly providing jacked-up prices to 100% of consumers. Most reality television shows should really be labeled game shows; they aren’t any different from The Newlywed Game or The Joker’s Wild.  Whether it’s Survivor awarding winners a million dollars or Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire awarding a husband, these shows reinforce the idea that life is nothing but a competition that we continually engage in with each other. While some shows pay lip service to the concept of teamwork, in the end it is usually only one person who wins. (I’m assuming from the commercials that The Great Race or whatever it’s called actually awards an entire team, but since I’ve never seen it I don’t know. Additionally, there may have been other team-based reality TV shows, but for the most part these wind up being individual competitions.) 

It is this obsession with competition to the exclusion of cooperation that can be pointed to as the beginning of one’s failure to adequately nurture their growing sense of compassion and understanding. And this lack of compassion and understanding is what eventually leads to invasions of foreign countries that posed absolutely no credible threat to another country’s security and way of life. And though competition is certainly a good idea in business in the sense that it should—though it usually doesn’t—force innovation and invention, the fact remains that almost every industry in America is shrinking due to mergers and acquisitions.  With shrinking industry comes shrinking wages and, ultimately, a shrinking workforce. The competition that is being presented as reality on these television shows is clearly not reflected in real life. While businesses may engage in cutthroat competition with each other, they all expect their employees to work together as a single entity.  Though, of course, they also promote the idea of competition through such things as promotion and Employee of the Month competitions. The fact that the only people who get any real benefit from such a thing are the managers and execs and not the actual Employee of the Month goes virtually unnoticed by those competing for the dubious honor.  

Reality television is also engendering a message that the key to success is image rather than ability. While an argument could certainly be made this is very reflective of reality, it nonetheless sends a dangerously misleading message that constantly reproduces itself. On many of these shows a contestant who is often considered the most qualified loses out to another contestant who presents a hipper image. Whether it is a singer on American Idol who has a better voice but is less attractively “packaged” or someone on The Apprentice who is far more competent at what they do but lacks “personality,” the message that impressionable viewers are receiving is that image is more important than substance. Of course, in the world of television,  that is true. After all, who would turn in week after week to watch a boring yet infinitely qualified-to-win contestant over a contestant who consistently entertains and surprises and walks around naked?  

Probably the single most dangerous message these shows send is that education is completely unnecessary to fulfill the American dream. While it is true this has been a growing concern since at least the middle of the last century with the rise of the instantly famous entertainer or sports star who publicly signs a lucrative contract and lives in an enormous mansion, at least those people possessed some sort of talent that set them apart from the masses. The possession of talent or education of any sort is now no longer considered a necessity in becoming instantly rich and famous. One need only possess the ability to humiliate himself or others on national television, or have absolutely no shame whatever, and they can make more money than many college graduates. Why go to school and face the difficulties of learning something when you can just get on TV and eat bugs and walk away with a bucket of money?  

By categorizing these shows as “reality” the makers are insidiously suggesting that they are replicating society. In fact, they aren’t replicating society as it is, but rather as those in power want people to believe it is. These shows reinforce the big business ideal that competition is what real life is all about; that presenting a cool front is preferable to possessing real abilities; and that success is better attained instantly through fame than through education and hard work. Why does big business want us to believe these things? Because of what they themselves are selling. If they can make you believe that life is about competition and dying with the most toys, then you will continue to acquire more and more products that you don’t really need and that aren’t all that much better than what you’ve already got. They want you to believe that cool is better than ability so you’ll buy the really expensive version of their product that looks so much cooler than the entry level version.  And for anyone who questions why those in power wouldn’t want you to become educated…well…um…hey, I think Who Wants to Marry an Idol Survivor who Danced with a Skating Celebrity Named Gotti just came on.