Today's college students have none of the fear of "Big Brother" that marked their parents' post-McCarthy Cold War generation. In fact, their fascination with the notion of watching and being watched has fueled a dramatic shift in entertainment programming and ushered in the era of Reality Television.Mark Andrejevic, an assistant professor of communication studies in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says a number of factors including technology and economy paved the way for the rise of reality television, but none so much as a transformation of Americans' attitudes toward surveillance. He explores these factors and more in his new book, "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched," (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.)
Andrejevic believes that the interactivity of the Internet paved the way for reality TV mania. He interviewed producers of early reality programs such as MTV's The Real World who said that they initially had a hard time finding people willing to have their lives taped nearly 24 hours a day for several months. That was 1992. Now they hold auditions in college towns and thousands of young people form lines snaking for blocks just for the chance to audition.
"There are now more people applying to The Real World each year than to Harvard," Andrejevic says.
The key to that success is connected to people's increasing comfort with levels of surveillance that were once anathema in American society, Andrejevic says.
"In my book, I have attempted to think about the ways in which reality TV reconfigures public attitudes about surveillance," he says. "We're trained to make a split between private and public surveillance -- to be worried about government surveillance but not private, which is entertainment or gathering information to serve you better. We're moving into a period where that distinction starts to dissolve. Private surveillance is becoming so pervasive that it's time to start worrying about it as a form of social control."
That viewers of reality programming don't worry about surveillance or social control is testament to the power of television as a messenger, Andrejevic says.
"The cast members on these shows are constantly talking about how great the experience is, how much they have grown personally because of it," he says. "It connotes honesty -- you can't hide anything about yourself if you're on camera all day every day. It becomes a form of therapy or almost a kind of extreme sport -- how long can you withstand allowing yourself to be videotaped?"
There are many precedents for some elements of the reality TV shows. Various precedents have each introduced some element of what goes into a reality TV show. Consider all the TV shows that broadcast pictures and video footage of celebrities trying to go about their private lives and the TV shows dedicated to showing pictures of houses, cars, clothes and other things that celebrities own. Sometimes the celebrities cooperate with the paparazzi photographers because the celebs want to promote themselves. Other times celebs get quite angry at having their privacy invaded and yet viewers do not switch away from such shows in disgust out of seeing someone's privacy invaded. But even this is nothing new because gossip columnists have been reporting on details of the private lives of public figures for decades and have found large ready audiences for their reports.
There is even a TV show called Cribs where celebrities allow camera crews in to film the insides of their houses. But Cribs is not an entirely novel idea. For decades there have been magazines containing picture spreads of the insides of especially stylish houses whose non-celebrity owners wanted to show off their tastes and affluence to the readers of such magazines.
New generations are growing up viewing television shows that let anyone see the lives of others recorded either voluntarily, as is the case of most reality TV, or involuntarily, as is the case with paparazzi celebrity stalking but also with some reality shows like COPS where criminals are filmed being chased and arrested by police. The results of surveillance are increasingly seen as entertainment and as within the realm of the public's right to know. Perhaps the government can not watch us all but TV show producers can.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2004 January 07 01:26 PM Surveillance Society|