Teenagers feed reality TV beast

August 02, 2005|By Nicholas Leonhardt

`THE WORLD as we know it is over," claims the president of CBS television. While Leslie Moonves and other TV executives may mourn the decline of traditional dramas and situation comedies, teenagers have made reality shows a part of the new world culture.

Many critics expected that reality TV was a craze that would fade like Nehru jackets and fondue pots. But the phenomenon, like mold, is persistently growing. The Reality Television Show Directory Web site lists 280 programs that transport viewers from cradle (Supernanny) to grave (The Will), and more such shows will debut this season.

If you can't take the heat this summer, don't turn on Hell's Kitchen, a cooking competition that serves up tears and tantrums. Teens who thought they had the summer off from school can vicariously compete in The Scholar, which offers a $250,000 college scholarship.

Reality TV is poking its camera into more-remote locales. This spring, British television followed the spiritual adventures of five men who joined a monastery in West Sussex. On the other side of the world, Iraq's Al-Sharqiya TV has been broadcasting makeovers that can't get more extreme: rebuilding bombed-out houses in Labor and Materials.

If such reality sells, why are adults complaining? For decades, parents, educators and psychologists turned down the volume on gory police dramas to announce that violence, sexual themes and obscenity on TV were corrupting children. A University of Michigan study in 2003 found proof that youths who witness brutality on the small screen act aggressively as adults.

Grown-ups continually complain that teens spend far too much time channel-surfing for dubious entertainment, yet 62 percent of high school students report that their parents impose no rules on TV use.

Although many viewers wanted an Extreme Makeover of American television, the resulting reality shows appear to reap just as much criticism for two reasons:

First, the dense crop of unscripted programs stifles the fragile buds of creativity. No one has ever mistaken situation comedies for Shakespeare, but until teens can watch first-rate drama, they won't be inspired to write it. If William worked in Hollywood today, would Romeo and Juliet have devolved into Who Wants to Marry a Montague? Presented with Charles Dickens' immortal lines, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," many reality fans would demand an audience vote. Young minds will never appreciate great dramatic plots unless they can watch them.

Second, reality TV promotes passivity. Instead of exploring exotic territories on their own, teens let Survivor castmates bear the mosquito bites and blisters. If viewers' own romances are souring, sweethearts Britney and Kevin can fill the void. Surely, America's Next Top Model will give image-conscious teens either motivation or desperation. If a beauty made up with mascara and mousse faces rejection, what hope does a gawky kid in braces have? Instead of inspiring personal growth, these reality shows may replace it.

Terrorism, warfare in the Middle East, urban violence, drug addiction, AIDS - the real threats to teens - overwhelm the young. Watching a stranger fail in prime time beats failing in real time. American youths can stomach the sight of a green-faced guy choking down a plateful of wiggling worms on Fear Factor. The image of a pale-faced private crawling through the streets of Baghdad proves harder to swallow.

Despite their name, reality shows actually provide a way to avoid real life rather than learning from its struggles.

Nicholas Leonhardt recently graduated from Loyola Blakefield High School and lives in Lutherville.

Columnists Trudy Rubin and Clarence Page are on vacation.

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