Reality television encourages bad behavior among viewers
Published: Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 00:12
President Barack Obama held his first state dinner Nov. 24. Coverage of events of this nature is generally straightforward and unremarkable.
This dinner, however, made headlines when it was discovered that two private citizens from Virginia, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, crashed the event and even got a chance to talk to the president.
The Secret Service was embarrassed these two slipped through their fingers.
After all, highly trained bodyguards searching for socialites aren't exactly the National Guard hunting Rambo.
According to The Associated Press, a network television executive who remained anonymous due to a network policy against public discussion of bookings said that the Salahis told news networks to "get their bids in" for an interview, and that they were looking for an amount in the "mid-six figures range."
Representatives for the couple also admitted that Michaele was trying to use the dinner crashing to land a spot on "The Real Housewives of D.C.," the next entry in Bravo's popular reality TV series.
As entertaining as they may be, the Salahis' actions reflect the idea that our society is one that rewards negative behavior.
For those unfamiliar with the inner-workings of the news industry, paying for interviews and other sources is most often considered unethical.
Yet, the Salahis feel that they should be rewarded for their perseverance with money and TV fame.
I won't go as far as to say that reality TV has made people behave worse overall than they did before their rise to prominence and subsequent proliferation, but these shows do reward actions that violate the usual social considerations of what is acceptable behavior.
I attribute this idea to a few reasons.
For one, most stories are more interesting when the audience has a "good guy" to care about and a "bad guy" to root against. These roles are played out in every reality show.
I remember watching two episodes of the first "Survivor" show in 1999, one of which was the finale.
Of the three contestants who were left before the winner was announced, two were reasonably likable, and one was completely insufferable.
Even as a sixth-grader, there was no doubt in my mind that the insufferable one was kept on the show because viewers would find it satisfying when she lost in the end.
Since then, reality shows (including the more realistic competition-based ones like "Project Runway") have continuously pushed the more compelling "bad guys" harder than many more likable but less charismatic contestants.
What I surmise from TV networks here is if I were going to appear on a reality show, I should act as reprehensibly as possible to gain the most exposure.
Someone nicer will probably win the competition, but I will be the one fans remember.
Although she was the "bad guy," the insufferable "Survivor" contestant still received a great deal of public attention and fame that comes along with notoriety – certainly more than those wimps who got voted off in the first week because they refused to eat tree bark.
Even more disconcerting is reality TV's emphasis that it is real and that its contestants are ordinary citizens.
This tactic is great from the perspective of the people making the show, as it often allows viewers to have a greater sense of identification with the "characters" on the show.
Reality TV stars are more convincingly similar to the average viewer than celebrities or fictional characters.
The Salahi situation shows how problems arise from the emphasis on "real." When people are repeatedly told that people like them can become the next reality TV star, they attempt to make themselves these stars.
The Salahis are mostly harmless, but others pushing for reality TV appearances can be more damaging.
Parent of the year candidate Robert Heene comes to mind. His son, Falcon, better known as the infamous "Balloon Boy," said his reason for participating in the hoax was, "we did this for the show."
Not only did the kid have to hide in the attic, but the parents wasted the time and efforts of many others who were erroneously searching for him when they could have been doing things that were actually productive.
All in the name of "Wife Swap."
Balloon Boy is likely an extreme case of excessive zeal for reality stardom, but it should be taken into consideration when looking at the messages reality shows send.
The solution is not for networks to suppress the personalities people present on TV, but for viewers to ask themselves whether or not they are condoning bad behavior by giving it so much attention.