August 20, 2008



Don't know what to watch on TV this Fall? Confused by all the cancelled shows and changing show times/dates? Why not watch some "real life TV"? Before you run screaming for the hills (oops, "The Hills" is a "reality TV" show), did you know there's a difference between "real life TV" and "reality TV"? Yup. "Real life TV" is following real people around their real lives or real jobs, unscripted. "Reality TV," instead, is a concocted, fully- or partially-scripted show like "Survivor," "Big Brother," "The Surreal Life," often throwing a bunch of strangers into a competition and having them behave badly towards each other.


When you think about it, we already love different kinds of "real life TV," as evidenced by wildly popular cooking shows, talk shows, sports shows, and top-of-the-charts talent shows like "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance?" and "America's Got Talent." Not only is it great to see non-celebrities on the little screen, we can interact by voting via cell phone for whomever we think is most deserving.


Interested in expanding your cranium? Why not dip into the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, Chicago's own WTTW (channel 11), the History Channel, C-Span (Capitol Hill), or BookTV on C-Span2?


Need to get in touch with nature (but it's cold, dark and late at night) or learn about the world? Try the Animal Planet Channel, National Geographic Channel or Travel Channel which boast fantastic shows that will take you all over the world to explore diverse cultures and observe all creatures great and small in their natural habitats.


True "real life TV," (chronicling real lives, real jobs) would be shows such as "Jon and Kate Plus 8"--the family life of a young couple with twins and sextuplets; "Project Runway"--although a competition, aspiring clothing designers have their creations judged by experts; "Ice Road Truckers"--those hearty souls who risk their lives hauling goods and supplies over frozen lakes, rivers and, yes, oceans, to the planet's northernmost reaches; and my fourteen-year-old nephew's favorite: "Dirty Jobs," (the smellier and grosser, the better). Other "real life TV" shows throw charity into the mix, constructing or refurbishing homes for families in need.


But remember, the first rule of media literacy is: "All media messages are constructs." Therefore, no media are "pure reality," no matter how objective the media makers are trying to be. The media product is a human creation, filtered through perspectives and choices. What was focused on and emphasized? Why? What was left out? Why? What was put in a favorable light through use of music, camera angles, composition, juxtaposition? What was put in a bad light?


How can we know whether or not something is scripted, falsified, exaggerated? The truth of the matter regarding these shows usually outs itself, due to the close scrutiny of the shows' fans! For example, "Laguna Beach" and "Real Housewives of Orange County," 'fessed up to being part myth. Other shows (not recommended) like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," "Denise Richards: It's Complicated," smack of trumped-up conflicts and motives of extreme self-promotion. They are shows about the show. (Sometimes you can trust what you see: looks phony? Just might be….)


Rather than voyeurism, "real life TV" can help us experience vicariously "how the other half lives," what daily struggles and victories our fellow human beings face. Some shows drag a little ("World's Deadliest Catch"), kind of waiting for something big to happen, while others consistently scintillate ("Dog, the Bounty Hunter").




  1. I work in TV, so I haven't ever felt comfortable completely condemning "reality shows" or lumping them all together. In fact, I'm a bit of a TV junkie, but it's all for shows like those you call "real life". I can spy phony moments and faked reactions a mile away, but many shows still feature enough good, true moments that they're worthwhile.

    Right now I'm addicted to "Student Body" on "The N"--a weight-loss competition for teenagers. The kids are so sincere and supportive of one another (well, most of them), and they're all trying really hard to get healthy.

    MTV's series "True Life" is, to me, a prime example of the tarnished age of reality TV. When the show first aired, many years ago, it was a great documentary-type show that explored the lives of its subjects. Now it's devolved into a show that is often contrived, with faked reaction shots, misused establishing shots, etc. When they first started that show, there was no such thing as a "reality editor". Now it's a whole niche, and the tricks of the trade have spread from show to show.

    When I was an assistant at a major network in 2000-2001, we had seven tv movie execs and ONE reality exec! You can imagine how that has changed over the years.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but the topic hit a nerve for me, obviously!

  2. thanks, katie! i'm addicted to ceratain reality shows, too. thanks for the "insider" info. i write for a primarily fearful-of-the-media audience, so i try to introduce/educate/open their minds to lots of diff media....