I read Olmo Dalco’s piece on Reality Television with interest. He makes a number of good points and correctly notes the union-busting dimension of the widespread reality format. I’m not sure that this format is set to dominate television, but it certainly currently enjoys great popularity with both the viewers and the profit promoting executives.

I should like to point out that there is another dimension that Dalco overlooks. Culturally, Reality Television constitutes a kind of pornography, titillating the viewer who can watch people engage in humiliating acts for money or fame. Like pornography, someone else’s jost personal actions and emotions become the voyeuristic entertainment of others who would themselves be ashamed to perform these acts publicly. Reality Television exploits the participants as well as the viewer’s curiosity.

Some twenty-five years ago Bertrand Tavernier wrote and directed a movie, Death Watch, which brilliantly anticipated and exposed the kind of media sickness that we now call Reality Television. He describes a future (apparently not so distant) in which a TV network (NTV) advertises a show that will intimately follow the terminal illness of a woman (Romy Schneider). Harvey Keitel plays a man who agrees to have a camera implanted in his eye to unobtrusively chronicle the women’s death. The despicable television executive (Harry Dean Stanton) pays everyone off to participate including the woman’s doctor. She is offered half a million dollars to participate. The drama comes from the woman’s defiant resistance to this obscene and shameful exploitation of a personal tragedy. 

This exploitation is dramatically illustrated by the following dialogue from the movie:

Tracey, the estranged wife of Keitel’s character: Vincent, doesn’t anyone else think that what you are doing to her is obscene and offensive?

Vincent, the TV executive: Oh, yes… 37% find it offensive and stay with us…

Tracey: I don’t understand…

Vincent: Well I do… It’s because it’s real, maybe too real for you.

Tracey: Do you think I can’t take a woman’s dying?

Vincent: It’s the new pornography… nudity’s not new anymore…