Beware - reality TV has escaped from the set

It's altering our view of the world, from war to Christmas carols

Television

December 14, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television is too vast an enterprise to ever fit neatly into any year-end-story box. But there are years in which a certain thematic unity can be found among the biggest moments, hit shows, and most powerful narratives of the television season.

This year, that common ground is reality TV - specifically, the spread of the reality TV sensibility not only throughout the medium, but through the larger culture.

Reality TV was already year-end news in 2000 with the debut of Survivor (CBS). By the start of last year, it was a programming staple. But this year, the evolution of reality TV goes beyond changing the kinds of programs that have dominated the prime-time landscape for more than 50 years to altering the very ways in which we see the world.

The year started on Jan. 6 with PBS airing "Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family," a documentary about the controversial life and last days of Loud, the first person to be made into a quasi-celebrity by reality TV some 30 years ago. And now it comes to a close with Paris Hilton, a very similar quasi-celebrity, generating her own kind of cultural heat in a new Fox reality series, The Simple Life.

Loud was part of the California family that in 1971 allowed a team of filmmakers to move into its home and record the family members' everyday lives. When the 12-part series, which included a gay teen-age Lance coming out onscreen, aired on PBS in 1973, it caused a cultural firestorm; The New York Times damned Loud as "an evil weed." Loud, who died in 2002 of Hepatitis C at the age of 50, never escaped the somewhat notorious persona created in An American Family, the series that many media historians consider the start of reality TV.

The 22-year-old Hilton had helped create her own notoriety via a sex video that circulated online before The Simple Life premiered. That reputation is, in fact, exploited to help sharpen the highly contrived culture clash between Hilton and the rural Arkansas family with which she and her Beverly Hills friend, Nicole Richie, are living in a reality TV version of the 1965 CBS sitcom Green Acres.

As naive as we today might consider the television audience that made a sitcom as goofy as Green Acres a top 10 hit by the fall of 1966, at least viewers of that era understood it was fiction. Television wasn't trying to present Green Acres as anything but a make-believe sitcom played for escapism and laughs.

This year, with reality shows like American Idol and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy becoming full-blown pop phenomena and the networks suffering through their first season without a single sitcom or drama becoming a breakout hit, the industry seems bent on trying to make everything look as much like reality TV as it can. In most cases, that merely makes for a cheapening of the prime-time landscape. But, in the case of at least one major television story this year - coverage of the war in Iraq - the results were far more troubling.

Reality of war

The centerpiece of war coverage for most networks and cable channels was their embedded correspondents, those on-air reporters who had trained with troops and were allowed by the Pentagon to accompany them as they invaded Iraq. But what viewers mostly saw in their reports were the correspondents themselves looking like contestants on Survivor - hungry, dirty, tired and stressed as they tried to keep up with the troops racing across the desert to Baghdad.

It was war coverage as an endurance test, with the emphasis on the network personality being tested instead of the war. A couple of correspondents were even "voted off the island" - Geraldo Rivera, of Fox News, was removed from Iraq by the Pentagon for broadcasting embargoed information, and Peter Arnett was fired by National Geographic and MSNBC after doing an interview in Baghdad that was deemed to be supportive of Saddam Hussein.

No network correspondent typified this new style of reality TV war coverage more than David Bloom, of NBC and MSNBC News. Network press releases described him as a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, dubbing the armored vehicle in which he rode the Bloom-mobile for its ability to transmit live, on-the-run reports.

But what those reports mostly showed were a caravan of tanks speeding through desert sand and Bloom crouched in the cramped vehicle filing his live reports. It was a TV tale full of sand, dust, sound and fury signifying nothing.

Sadly, the reality of war included reporters dying. Bloom died April 6 of a pulmonary embolism, perhaps brought on in part by sitting in that vehicle with his legs bent in such a way as to cause blood clots as he filed those reports.

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