Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Get Real

It seems our culture has formed a long term relationship with the hyper-emotional feelings that are brought about by the reality television show circuit. Viewers clammer for more drama, more danger and often more of the pathetic I-can’t-believe-how-much-your-life-sucks-compared-to-mine feeling that this type of programming offers. This emotional I am better-than, or smarter-than, or I-could-do-that-better, or WTF-are-you-doing footage is edited and served up with the goal of higher and higher ratings. And so far this formula has worked well. At least well enough to keep the medium chugging along and part of our permanent pop-culture media array.

Consumers love the shock and awe of life threatening danger and the holier-than-thou feeling one gets when one sees someone who is well, less well-off in any particular situation. Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 11.08.48 AMSo we are presented with shows where people risk and sometimes lose their lives for a prime time slot. Or shows like Hoarders where people with possible mental health problems are used as fodder for making ourselves feel better about our messy closets and our sometimes messy lives.

It’s a disturbing trend that we have seen grow over the past few decades and embed itself within our popular media like a blood-thirsty tick. Reality TV doesn’t seem to be going away. What many thought would just be a trend has cemented itself within the mainstream television marketplace. People have come of age watching reality TV. Lot’s of people wish they had their own reality TV show. Reality TV has influenced a generation of young people.

Fame has become more desirable than content or credibility. This says a lot about our society as a whole and our motivations within the societal structure. For deeper thoughts on this topic, learn more about Rebecca Goldstein’s thoughts on mattering. Here is a popcorn trail to help you find more about that if you so desire.

Part of the popularity of the reality show medium that it is affordable to produce with an endless pool of potential topics. It’s an entertainment formula that works. Yet even with this seemingly endless supply of reality, the creative pools of the current content producers seems to only be fish tank deep. I say this because as I type this post there are literally two competing reality TV shows fighting for eyeballs based around the concept of designing fish tanks. Yes, there are TWO.

SO I thought it would be fun to do a light-hearted AI today and see if we, with our super-genius science-soaked brains can’t be a bit more creative than the average. Can we come up with some better content ideas than the current reality television show line-up is offering?

If you had an endless budget and could produce your own reality TV show, what would it be about? What would you like to see? Do you watch reality TV and if so what shows do you like and why? And do you think the content is really reality?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

Photo and tweet by me.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I would watch a show about burners and burn culture. It may not be high drama, but there are tens of thousands of amazingly talented artists the world over in a scene that is not well-known, performing feats rarely heard of beyond Cirque du Soleil. It could follow the people who organize events like Burning Man, which draws 60,000 people to the camp in the desert for a week each summer, and smaller regional burns, and countries’ first burn events, etc. I’ve seen circus themed reality shows, but little in the media ever about burners, whose events practice a gift economy, explicitly forbidding cash or barter for all items.

  2. A friend of mine’s sister and her husband were trying to sell their home with little luck. They ended up getting on one of those Home & Garden network shows that helps people sell their house. Well, this buddy of mine lets me know what time the show is on, so I catch it, and they get to the open house portion where prospective buyers are allegedly taking a look. One of those prospective buyers was my friend, who they interview and fail to disclose that he’s actually related to the owners. I am well aware as to the actually directed nature of reality shows these days, heh.

    I must confess, however, I did watch Storage Wars for a while.

    Are underground, urban youth dance fights still a thing? I’d watch that.

  3. Oh Amy, you’ve discovered my deep, dark secret. I love love love reality shows. We were huge fans of the those horrible Fox shows like Temptation Island & Boot Camp. Survivor has been a long time favorite, we had been flagging but the last season was amazing.

    My reality show would be “The world’s greatest programmer”. I’d make the gender ratio 50/50 and all the challenges would be graded objectively. Instead of sitting around talking shit or fighting the filler would be contestants going around teaching underrepresented groups about computers, math and science and building software to that helps people.

  4. I love, love, love ‘Face Off’ – FX artists build creature characters with prosthetics and make up in an elimination-style competition. The competitors are nice and helpful to each other, it’s almost the antithesis of a lot of reality show competitions.
    I like watching Chef Ramsay and Judge Judy yell at people.
    I watched a show – ‘Solitary’ – where contestants were put in isolation pods and then run through torturous elimination challenges.
    And ‘What Would You Do?’ – the marriage of Candid Camera and social experiment.
    Do shows like ‘Mythbusters’ or ‘Jackass’ count as reality TV?

    1. Mythbusters is NOT reality TV, it’s really a science show in an attractive package. And “American Pickers” teaches a little history while they are digging through the relics of bygone eras. “What Would You Do?” teaches us about what we are as a society, and a civilization. Chef Ramsey, OTOH, is a bullying ass. And Judge Judy delivers a reality smack up the side of people’s head. Beware of this “Judge Ross”, his show is totally scripted, with actors.

    2. After 20+ years in restaurant work I cannot even with fucking Hell’s Kitchen. The feeling I get watching that show is the same feeling I used to get when the kitchen manager at one place I worked used to throw hot pans down the line and call people gendered slurs when he’d get stressed. He referred to it as “motivation.” I called it “abuse.” My spouse loves that show. I get triggered by it, sometimes only a little, sometimes a LOT. Especially when they have the dudely dudebros sound off about the women’s team, OMG, hold me back.

  5. I’d give the money back and run away as fast as I could. There is absolutely no reality in “reality” shows and I won’t waste my time. I think back to what the early greats said about television in the late Forties and early Fifties, about the power to educate and inform people leading to a better world, and wonder what the hell happened. Why did programs like “The 20th Century” give way to “The Voice”?

  6. For me, good reality tv features people who are highly skilled at something, competing in creative ways against other highly skilled people. Top Chef, for instance. Or The Sing Off. Early seasons of Project Runway. Interpersonal drama of the “I’m not here to make friends!” variety almost always ruins a show for me, and any show that highlights mental illness as something to gawk at is automatically dead to me. (I’m looking at you, Hoarders. Or actually, I’m not.)

    1. I sat in on a late night talk show audience once (long story). This fresh hell included a “Real Housewife” and the “LA Shrink”. I was pretty boozed up (the show serves you flavored vodka drinks), so it was weirdly, ironically enjoyable. But yeah, I got the worst of all possible “Realities”, heh.

  7. I’ve hated unreality tv since MTV started the whole stupid thing with Real World and Road Rules (?). Ugh.

    And yes, I said “unreality tv”. I’ve always called it that because whatever it is, it isn’t “real.”

  8. “Fondling Nature: One Human’s Attempt To Keep A Plant Alive” Producers pick those that are very bad at growing plants and those that are very good, alternating weekly (or juxtaposing one of each per episode) to see how each fails and succeeds in growing one or more plants. This could produce a spin-off show; Plant Avengers! where a group of people that are [depicted as] one-part Plant Humane Society and another Extreme Eco-Terrorists go out and find those that had failed in previous episodes of FN: OHATKAPA and either rehabilitate them and teach them how to keep plants alive or terrorize them by blowing up small clumps of dirt and rocks on the person’s porches, cars, desolate and uncared for gardens, etc., with M80s and what not (all behind the scenes with expert demolition teams, city permits, and forewarning to the person being terrorized [as they themselves having agreed to be terrorized if they failed to successfully grow a plant on FN…in their contract], etc.). Of course PA! will lead to another spin-off show; Geologists of Doom who in turn retaliate against the PA! folk for harming delicate and peaceful silicates, kidnapping the offenders and secreting them away to calcium carbonate lairs of retribution and spelunking-ness.

    Of course it would all end when some idiot gets out of control and harms someone or ingests too much Toxicodendron radicans on camera; so better to cancel all three shows now, before they air, so that we can live with the beloved untainted magical memories of the prior shows that will have never been.

  9. A buddy of mine was actually on a reality TV show once, since he’s trying to jumpstart a career as a performer, and figured that any publicity is good publicity. It was pretty interesting talking to him about the difference between what actually happened and what was portrayed as happening. E.g., at one point, the producers asked him to try to be funnier and tell jokes, so he did. Then later in the program he was criticized for always trying too hard to be funny. Clearly the producers of the show already knew what kind of story they wanted to tell, and it was just a matter of getting people to act their parts, without explicitly giving them lines.

    Anyway, much as I hate reality TV, I would totally make “The Real Postdocs of ,” all about that dramatic time that makes or breaks a scientist’s career. The excitement of discovery! The agony of the null result! The fury of responding to Reviewer #3’s comments on your manuscript! The despair of reaching your mid-thirties and still only being employed by temporary appointments! No one would watch it.

  10. Sturgeon’s Law certainly applies to reality TV. 99% of it is crap. What little reality tv I have enjoyed have been shows that educated as well as entertained. The original “Tough Enough” show about people competing to become WWE wrestlers was a fascinating behind the scenes look at how pro wrestling works. The same with “The Next Food Network Star”, which pulled the curtain back on how a cooking show is produced. Both programs quickly jumped the shark because once the industry secrets are revealed, there’s little left to do but generate melodrama.

    If I had Amy’s hypothetical budget I would spend it on a contest based reality show where designers compete to build creative and interesting playgrounds around the country. In fact, I actually want to watch such a show. Someone should pitch the idea to KaBoom.

    1. Actually there was a homestead reality TV show on PBS I watched where modern day families would try to live as mid-19th century homesteaders. It was pretty cool actually!

  11. I would make a reality-reality show. Participants have to develop a concept for a reality show and produce an episode. Then they get cruelly criticized by the judges, and say nasty things about each other’s shows. The second season would recurs and soon all of television would be sucked into the infinite loop of reality^n TV.

  12. My idea for a reality TV show was to stick a webcam into our Toxicology lab at the time when they were being forced to merge with a group from another hospital. We could have had online betting as well – which group would come out on top?. I reckon we could have made a fortune, selling the distribution rights to the US and Europe, Target demographic = schoolkids, overall message being that things like bullying and immature behaviour don’t change much when you leave school and go into the workforce.

  13. I would take the money and produce whatever the reality show equivalent of a mockumentary is, complete with scripts, real actors, and a fucking union crew. Most people don’t know that reality shows pretty much universally use non-union crews, so people are underpaid and don’t get hours toward their health care coverage. One two-hour reality show takes away the airtime, pay, and benefits of the crews from four whole unionized scripted half-hour shows.

    Seriously. I refuse to watch reality shows for this reason alone.

    1. The show itself would be called ‘Reality Check’, and the premise would be similar to ‘The Producers’ in that the director of development for a TLC or Bravo-like network (that has suffered from serious mission drift since the days it used to show operas and educational programming) is trying to sabotage the reality tv department in an effort to get back to the way things used to be. But when s/he pitches and produces a show with a beyond horrible premise, it becomes a massive success, etc.

      Show treatment COPYRIGHT ME 2013. If anyone actually produces this shit I wanna get paid.

  14. How about one about nudists, We could laugh our asses off at all the fuzzy pixelation, idiot panic from it being on TV at all, cries of stupid from the right wing, and bet on how long it takes before the blurring becomes irrelevant, because half the country decides to try it out. lol

    Seriously though, I think the “budget” for this crap is not much higher up than that of a YouTube video, in reality. All the actual money goes into ads, and, maybe, some better camera equipment. Mostly, its just complete crap, because crap is easier than hiring writers. Though… it has had the benefit of generating “spoof” shows, like Joe Smoe, so.. its not all horrible.. lol

  15. Discovery Science recently shared on Facebook, How would you like to follow these two guys who do stupid shit on our new show, “Don’t Try This At Home!”

    I responded by suggesting that maybe a channel that bills itself “Discovery Science” might want to try something radical, like a science based show….

  16. If I could make a reality TV show, I’d make it about science students, probably in doctorate programs, as they work on their theses. Or perhaps established scientists working to prove or disprove a hypothesis. I think if it were done well, it could be exciting and compelling.

    I watch Mythbusters and Deadliest Catch. I think these two shows are how reality TV should be done.

  17. In the UK, if an MP (Member of Parliament) dies or resigns between general elections, there’s a “by-election”. These often attract shoals of independent and fringe candidates. My idea is for a kind of unofficial primary, with the winner (after a “Big Brother” type contest, with all the entrants living together and performing silly tasks, and one person eliminated by viewer vote at a time) standing in the next available by-election, with the advantage of already being a minor celebrity. You’d have to be careful about legal issues, but it would be amusing to see the representatives of the main parties trying to find reasons to keep the winner out of the by-election. Unfortunately, I can foresee the fascist or libertarian winning, if they happened to give good TV.

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