From a distance

Audiences for scripted television (including soaps) are definitely shrinking, and there are dozens of factors why. It’s too simplistic and sensationalized to label gosselinhair1any one person or factor a “show killer” when so many changes are happening all at once.

One major factor has been the rise of reality TV. Although reality shows don’t compete with soaps, they’ve definitely changed the game for scripted shows. When network heads see that they can deliver ratings and demographics to advertisers with a show that is far cheaper to make, the outcome is a given.

I don’t have a problem with most of the true “competition” shows. They may be temporary and fleeting, but whether it’s a battle of wits (Amazing Race, Survivor) or a talent show (Dancing with the Stars, American Idol) there’s at least some level of recognition for the contestant, and it’s entertainment. One of my favorite shows – Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List – is a reality show (though it’s really a sitcom disguised as a reality show).

But the shows I do have an issue with are the ones that purportedly show us all a glimpse into someone’s private life. Many of them are about entitled socialites (The “Real” Housewives shows) or various C and D-list celebrities (people like Kendra Wilkinson and Tiffany “New York” Pollard, who have both had several shows to their name without any discernible talent).

The nadir of this trend for a long time was The Hills, a show that focused on several young, rich Beverly Hills twentysomethings. It’s a cesspool of vapid young women and toolish young guys, and of course this made it a huge hit (and something that, inexplicably, Guiding Light tried to copy).

Most of these shows exist to be objects of derision and ridicule from the audience. It’s a Faustian bargain that the “performers” don’t seem to mind – they get money and fame, and the network gets content. I think it’s a waste of time and brain cells, but it’s all fine and well when the participants are all consenting adults.

The show that’s broken my tolerance, though, is Jon & Kate Plus 8. It makes me uncomfortable to think that people watch this show (10 million watched the season premiere a few weeks ago, about 5 times the audience for most daytime shows).

It makes me uncomfortable to think of the psychological damage that the children involved have suffered. (They’ve had a camera and a boom mike in their face since day one. If you think those kids are capable of an honest, organic emotion at this point, think again.)

And it makes me uncomfortable that so many people weigh in on the adults – in the most vociferous manner possible. (I’ve heard many people use the C word about Kate Gosselin – and I don’t mean “classy,” folks.)

Now, we’re to be treated to a huge, ratings-garnering “announcement” next week. All signs point to the Gosselins announcing that their marriage is ending. Yet another personal moment sold to the highest bidder. Coming soon: watch Jon and Kate poop!

I’m sorry if I sound ultra-conservative about this, but these shows just seem SO unhealthy to me. Granted, you’re reading the blog of a guy whose favorite reality show is on PBS: History Detectives (a show that actually allows us to learn something about our past).

I get that people need mindless entertainment from time to time – we’ve had the virtual collapse of our economy, two wars, a huge cultural divide in this country, and diseases like H1N1 and e coli in the news everywhere we turn. People need to hang up their brain for a few hours and forget all of that  – I totally get that.

But there seems to be a lack of boundaries, of a healthy distance, when people are watching real people as entertainment. It’s so easy for viewers to judge the very people they’re watching – sometimes in a very negative, hateful and unhealthy way.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that scripted shows, continuing stories and theater can show us people we “know” without putting someone’s personal life in the spotlight. Well-conceived, well-written plays and shows always point out things to us about ourselves and about the people around us. It may be a fictional character, but those feelings, failings and faults can be just as real on a stage as they can in the backyard of someone’s split-level ranch.

Fictional plays and shows can still be entertainment, but offer a healthy distance for us to be voyeurs. We might still judge the characters we see, but we do so understanding that they’re metaphors and representations, not a real person.

I’m surprised that the ratings for TV and for daytime TV are, in fact, still falling. In this time of trouble and strife, I assumed at least a measurable handful of people would turn to the soaps for some escapist fare.

But somewhere, the tide has turned and a healthy distance isn’t cool. We no longer want to watch a fictional marriage disintegrate. We want to watch someone’s real marriage implode. We will only settle for REAL Christians being fed to REAL lions these days, and nothing less.

One thought on “From a distance

  1. Someone *else” watches History Detectives? This is just getting scary. I swear, one of these days I’m going to doctor up a Denny’s menu and say Martin Luther King wrote his I Have a Dream speech on it, just so I can be on that show and meet the lovely Elyse Luray. (Hey! PBS has some drool-worthy people, too!)

    I’d thought the reality TV craze would have died down by now. That was my prediction two or three years ago, but that nonsense is still going strong. Outside of my two steady soaps (GL and Y&R), I can’t think of another network show I watch regularly. I tune in to cable or down load from the web Weeds, Mad Men, Big Love, In Treatment, and Dexter. Oh, and now the wonderful Nurse Jackie.

    I know at least 20 people who do the same…lots of folks don’t bother owning TVs any more. Maybe the networks should consider this possibility: by producing crap, they’re not spending more and holding on to the same numbers of viewers….they’re just holding on to the same *percentage* of a smaller pool of viewers, with viewers abandoning network television in droves.

    I can’t really stomach the dance competitions and such, but I won’t begrudge them. I do think it’s nice that parents have something they can sit and watch with their kids at 8pm, without fear of seeing someone’s head get blown off or, you know, being exposed to something even more obscene – like Charlie Sheen. I, however, can’t and won’t watch those programs.

    We really are twins, aren’t we? (I was a twin, actually – scary to think of two of me!)

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