Reality TV: What does it say about a society that watches?

Reality television has turned viewers into voyeurs who take pleasure in watching others fail. Photo: Kim Kardashian/ Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

SANTA CRUZ, January 6, 2014 —  “Be excellent to each other.” It is a line from the film “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989). A profoundly simple, positive message from an entertaining, if slightly idiotic movie.

Unfortunately, Americans today spend far too much time being anything but excellent to each other. People learn from, and react to their surroundings. American culture has grown increasingly dependent on the entertainment industry to shape its views, attitudes, and social mores.


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If the culture industry was filled with benevolence and respect, this would be good news. Unfortunately, the waves of media crashing daily over most Americans are anything but.

When MTV unveiled “The Real World” in the early 1990s, it was a brave experiment in starless, unscripted television. The show was instantly mesmerizing and addictive and, like most things addictive, American viewers quickly became dependent. Almost overnight, the dull sitcoms and flaccid dramas which had ruled the airwaves became passé. Viewers fell in love with the flawed humanity highlighted by reality television.

While network writers struggled to create dramatic content that could peak and be resolved in under 30 minutes, “The Real World” kept piling on the garbage, with no reconciliation required. Soon, every network was scrambling to create its own take on lowest common denominator television.

The results have kept Americans mired in humanity’s worst aspects ever since.

There is something sickeningly satisfying about watching others fail. The Germans call it schadenfreude, pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Reality television has turned viewers into witnesses, shameful voyeurs of bad behavior.

Perhaps worse is the fact that increasing numbers of young people are now looking to these programs for cues to live in the world.

The enduring message is that one’s chances of acquiring instant wealth increase incrementally with their willingness to treat those around them with pettiness and contempt. Americans riveted to a dizzying array of reality shows now believe that being excellent to one another is not only stupid, but will also never make them rich or famous.

It does not help that so many reality programs focus on bottom feeding celebrities, most of whom have fallen from grace or are enduring some sort of pathetic life crisis. Partners cheat, competitors lie, and friends are disposable, these are the prevailing values learned from reality television.

With almost no resistance, Americans have allowed their televisions to become nouveau classrooms, with daily lessons from some of the worst people imaginable. If it was not bad enough that so many people are learning how to treat one another from shows based on such antisocial behavior, there is now an entire class of celebrities who have achieved fame solely due to their ability to be hateful on camera.

The future is not bright for a society which covets individuals like this, while simultaneously devaluing teachers, unions, and political activists. The value of entertainment is a known quantity. Life can be stressful, and people enjoy being able to unwind and relax. Certainly, there must be a more edifying way to do it than by absorbing life lessons from people who crassly represent the antithesis of what most people could aspire to become: excellent to each other.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Santa Cruz, California native Russ Rankin is the vocalist for the seminal California punk band Good Riddance, the hard rock band Only Crime as well as currently performing original songs as a solo artist. Rankin is a dedicated vegan, an avid animal rights advocate, a political activist and has been a regular columnist for AMP Magazine and New Noise Magazine as well as contributing to various magazines such as Alternative Press, Razorcake and others. 

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