- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

It began with “Survivor” in 2000, when 16 persons were cast away on a tropical island to “outwit, outlast, outplay” each other, and became one of the biggest surprise TV hits in years, spawning legions of imitators.

Within five years, however, the trend had led to Fox’s “Who’s Your Daddy,” in which an adoptee could win $100,000 by correctly identifying her father. Widely condemned as cruel and tasteless, that show was quickly canceled.

From eating bugs on “Fear Factor” to skydiving in “The Amazing Race” to getting fired on “The Apprentice,” Americans have been inundated with one “reality TV” show after the other. From talk radio to academia, the phenomenon has been analyzed from a variety of perspectives.

Entertainment industry observers point out that, in an age of competing cable choices reducing networks to ever-smaller slices of the audience pie, reality programming gives executives a cheap product — no professional actors or Hollywood scriptwriters to pay.

Others, however, contemplate the lessons “reality” television teaches Americans about themselves and reflects about the culture.

To produce “The Tribe Has Spoken: Life Lessons From Reality TV,” David Volk watched 200 hours of these shows, and condensed the content down to a few key lessons.

One of his favorite lessons: “There is no such thing as easy money unless, of course, you like eating bugs, living on an island with people who don’t like you that much or you want to outsmart Donald Trump on a daily basis.

“There really isn’t any easy way,” Mr. Volk says.

The popularity of reality television, Mr. Volk and other students of the genre say, reflects Americans’ desire to get rich, become famous or experience excitement by watching “real people” with whom they can identify.

“People always read and watch TV so they can live amazing and interesting experiences vicariously through characters,” says Lex van den Berghe, former “Survivor” contestant turned “Survivor” commentator. “But when you remove that huge wall that exists between the world of fiction and the real world and have real people in real situations, it makes it that much easier for people to live that vicarious experience and lose themselves in that little fantasy.”

Part of reality television’s staying power is a direct result of the contestants being people who could be your next-door neighbors, says Mr. van den Berghe. In his hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif., he became a local celebrity during his appearances on “Survivor: Africa” in 2001 and “Survivor: All-Stars” in 2004.

Three years after his original appearance, his 15 minutes of fame is only now starting to fade. “Survivor” fans still come up to him and talk about their favorite episodes or ask questions about the show, he says.

Mr. van den Berghe points out that this is remarkable because, unlike familiar sitcoms such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” most of reality shows are not available on digital video disc and have never been in reruns.

“You don’t have the phenomenon of people watching it over and over again,” he says. “But years after watching [the original broadcast], they are still talking about it.”

Why the enduring interest? Voyeurism, says Kim Leck, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, who sees the reality TV audience as evidence of widespread interest in scandal.

“We want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives. We always want to know what’s going on behind closed doors,” she says.

The series “Big Brother,” which places previously unacquainted people in a house together to live, fight and eventually kick each other out, is the perfect example of what she says is the natural human desire to watch people as if they were in a fishbowl.

“We want to know how we stack up next to other people and [watching real people on television] is just taking the next step. These people could be the people living next door. We wonder, ‘What’s going on with them? Are they as whacked out as we think they are?’” she says.

Some see a darker aspect to such shows.

“Reality TV is a window into our soul, there’s no question about that,” says Sandy Rios, former president of Concerned Women for America. “In that regard, it’s pretty scary because I think what we are seeing is just the depth to which the immorality that we’ve viewed on TV has affected the deepest parts of our culture.”

Yet she also sees the redemptive value of programs that show negative outcomes for irresponsible behavior — however lurid and sensational the presentation might be.

“It has shown us the consequences of life lived without restraint,” she says. “People may joke about Jerry Springer and about his show, but no one watches that and thinks ‘I want to be that way,’ because those people are out of control. It shows us the consequences of people having sex without commitment and treating life as though it were nothing. We see the result of that before our very eyes and that’s not a bad thing.”

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