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Get Real!

26 Oct, 2002 By: Dan Bennett

The reality-TV phenomenon that has dominated popular culture during the past five years has done more than provide vicarious and sometimes illicit thrills to a nation of alleged couch potatoes.

It has also inspired lengthy discourses from modern philosophers, sky-is-falling predictions from moral finger-waggers and occasional shouts of glee from network executives and company stockholders.

Consider the comments made by columnist Rodrigo Dorfman in the online cultural magazine Spectator (spectatoronline.com).

“Reality TV reinforces a world where confusion and amnesia about the nature of the economic, political and cultural forces that shape our daily lives actually become precious virtues,” Dorfman wrote last year. “There's an inverse equation at work here. The more removed you are from any social responsibility or structural analysis of the society you live in, the better equipped you'll be to revel in the pseudo-liberating effects of this new communication technology. Big Brother loves you to death.”

And also, Rodrigo, you get to see naked people, car crashes, fist fights, ruthless maneuvering in the far reaches of the world and cheating beaus.

Truth is, Dorfman makes multiple valid points about reality programming moving us toward a completely voyeuristic society where we are all watching each other behave and interact, judging our peers and presenting ourselves for public inspection.
It's not likely, though, that consumers, who gobble up some of their favorite reality-based shows on video, are giving too much thought to destructive sociological politics. They want “The Real World,” “Cops,” “The Jerry Springer Show” and “The Osbournes” on video, and though each reality show rises to its own quality level, all of them address some phase of real life and have made, or will soon make, their way to the home video marketplace.

What consumers want is no filters. Jenny Brown, an editor at Amazon.com, says customers write saying they prefer titles be uncensored, without black boxes covering nudity and with all potentially offensive language intact.

“The studios will catch on to what people want from these titles as they continue to grow in number,” Brown said. “When the reality titles give the customers what they want, naturally more will sell.”

Reality television is decades old, with early programs such as “Wanted,” “Candid Camera” and “An American Family” earning audience attention. The interest renewed itself substantially a decade ago with the MTV series “The Real World,” which placed young people in a close-quarters living situation, turned on the cameras and let human nature take its course.

MTV has since partnered with Paramount Home Entertainment and released a handful of titles from the series, with the upcoming The Real World You Never Saw: Las Vegas and the parody The Real World Movie: The Lost Season both arriving Jan. 28.

“This is the one that started it all,” said Saul Melnick, VP of worldwide home video for MTV. “We've seen that consumers not only buy into the show, but they also buy the ancillary products, such as video. The video titles have done well enough that we will continue to release them. The audience grows with these characters.”

Sometimes, reality gets more, um, physical. Backyard Wrestling Inc. has continued its prolific output of anything-goes titles, featuring suburban backyard brawls. The company has also devised its New Xtreme Entertainment Group, with new and upcoming titles including The Backyard Babes Behind-the-Scenes Uncensored 2: Down & Dirty, World's Wildest Bachelor Parties, World's Wildest Street Fights and Ghetto Brawls, promising “100 percent real gang fights, shocking girl slug-outs and unbelievable bare-knuckle street brawls.”

Although there is real aggression on some titles, BYW Inc., which has scored big success in the United States and is now establishing sales in Australia, Japan and England, emphasizes the entertainment aspects of the Backyard Wrestling titles.

“Despite the sometimes graphic presentations, no wrestlers depicted in the video series have ever been seriously injured or hurt,” said company president Rick Mahr. “The violence is 100 percent simulated, and is based upon the strict tenets of high-impact, choreographed showmanship, with the utmost safety in mind, similar to the WWE and other forms of wrestling-based sports entertainment.”

The violence was not 100 percent simulated in Bumfights, the controversial video in which real-life homeless people are given money, food, cigarettes and perhaps a place to crash for a night or two in return for slugging it out on camera. San Diego police recently arrested a film crew working on a sequel to the original, which reportedly has sold more than 300,000 copies through a Web site, and two “stunt bums” are suing producers, claiming they haven't gotten their fair share of the proceeds.

Know this, though: Reality TV has not always been so physical, even if it has been intimate. PBS helped establish the market long ago with its quality “observational documentary” programs, starting in 1993 with the critically acclaimed “An American Family,” and continuing today with programs such as “Frontier House,” “1900 House” and “The Farmer's Wife,” all available on video, and the scheduled Dec. 10 release of “1940s House,” with a modern-day family sent to live in a wartime-Britain-styled home.

“We're very focused on the need for families to view quality programming together and discuss issues relevant to their own lives,” said Dan Hamby, VP of PBS consumer products. “Along with entertainment, that's a vital element of family viewing.”

So high-minded titles join less creatively stringent titles in the marketplace, all apparently playing some role in our changing culture, as Dorfman concludes in his Spectator column.

“Probably the most chilling revelation to come out of my investigation was the realization that reality TV is making surveillance not only fun and essential to our sense of identity, but also fundamental to our new emerging information economy,” Dorfman wrote.

Plus, there's the occasional barbecued rat on “Survivor.”

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