The Rise of Reality Television and its Lasting Consequences
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” -Presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 Iowa campaign rally
The year is 1973: Richard Nixon is President of the United States as well as being investigated for his contribution toward the Watergate scandal, The Vietnam War is on its last legs, and among other events the United States were amidst an oil crisis due to an oil embargo. This was the same year An American Family debuted on PBS (Public Broadcast System).
An American Family was the original reality T.V. show, airing twelve episodes surrounding an upper-middle-class family from Santa Barbara, California. The series saw 300 hours of raw footage cut down to twelve episodes, displaying the primarily negative aspects of family on-goings that ultimately ended with the dissolution of the marriage between the parents. At the time, this was labeled as a documentary series of a standard Californian household. The series was ripe with controversy, arguably attributed to the ever-present cameras adding to the family members playing up events.
As this was the first of its kind, it was understandable mislabeled; seeing as there was no such concept of what we know now to be reality T.V.. The basic distinction, that has been made since, between a documentary and a reality show is that a documentary is for educational purpose while a reality show is for entertainment purpose.
In 1992, MTV took a page out of the Dutch handbook and copied their reality soap concept for Nummer 28. Nummer 28 pioneered the use of interspersing soundtrack music, confessional interviews, and following and documenting the lives of strangers. MTV introduced The Real World: regular people (strangers) living together doing life. As there were no scripts or actors, the series was relatively inexpensive to make. Critics initially reviewed the show extremely negatively, calling the series “painfully bogus”, but it was an instant success with the mainstream audience; thus, the birth of American reality television.
Over the years, reality television has fine-tuned its mechanics in order to operate like a well oiled machine with seven core categories: Documentary/docu-series, competitions, makeover/renovation, dating, hidden camera/pranks, supernatural, and travel. A reality series may cross-over and incorporate multiple themes within these seven categories, but each show tends to play by the same essential parameters. For example: in the dating category, The Bachelor/Bachelorette hands roses to the continuing contestants while The Flavor of Love opted to hand out clocks instead.
As the reality television culture continued to grow and expand, celebrities and the social elite began to capitalize on the platform. Celebrities that were essentially fading from the public eye saw it as an opportunity to stay relevant. In 2002, The Anna Nicole Smith Show as well as the The Osbournes both debuted. The former followed Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith post Playboy career in a time when she struggled to find work while the latter featured heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne and his family in their personal lives, paralleling An American Family.
Celebrities saw the reality television environment as a means to keep their name in the mainstream along with continued revenue that is generally easier to generate than working in an alternative capacity.
In 2003, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie used the reality television platform to cross-over from social elite to Hollywood celebrity with their show The Simple Life. The Simple Life took the sitcom idea of putting characters in situations drastically outside of their element. The success of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and the American fascination of both social elite, as well as the private lives of celebrities, lead to the conglomeratization of the Kardashian empire.
Following the success of Fox’s The Simple Life, NBC took a similar approach in 2004 with The Apprentice. Businessman and real-estate developer Donald Trump licensed his name and brand to NBC for what they billed as “the ultimate job interview”. Trump’s name, already widely known within east coast circles, soon became a household name synonymous with the phrase “you’re fired!” as well as a no-nonsense confrontational business style. Regardless of whether or not that was a persona adapted for the show, the American people saw it as his regular personality.
A 2007 psychology research paper characterizes celebrity obsession within three different levels: Entertainment-Social, Intense-Personal, and Borderline-Pathological. These levels signify the particular individual’s obsession regarding a specific celebrity. Entertainment-Social is the low end of the spectrum and is characterized as more of a conversational piece between friends. The next level, Intense-Personal, goes a step further as the particular celebrity is consistently thought about (consciously or otherwise). The most drastic, Borderline-Pathological, is defined as an individual would go to great lengths for the celebrity, potentially willing to commit an illegal act if asked by that celebrity.
Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump are two examples of captivating the attention of the majority of America. Due to the fact that their lives are essentially on display (scripted or unscripted), we have come to have a sense of familiarity with said individual. We know more about them than we do the people in our regular lives that we actually come into contact with. They have each cultivated such a wide-ranging base that spans the spectrum of the three types of obsession put forth by Lorraine Sheridan, Adrian North, John Maltby, and Raphael Gillett in their 2007 study mentioned above.
Trump recognized his cult following and capitalized on their obsession with him. In 2016, presidential candidate Trump claimed, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue a shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” at a campaign rally in Iowa. The voters he was referring to would most likely fall under the third and most drastic type of obsession, Borderline-Pathological. Trump’s style of constantly making controversial statements or erroneous claims has forced anyone on a social media platform to fall into the second degree of obsession, whether intentional or otherwise he is forced into conversation. Trump has built an empire upon the strength of his Borderline-Pathological fanbase; to the extent that if he were to shoot someone on fifth avenue, his base would potential come to his defense and protection. Trumpism, or the blind following of a particular celebrity, is dangerous for the reason that the celebrity (in this case Donald Trump) continually amasses his following to the point that they begin to see themselves as an all-powerful idol that can do no wrong; it’s like Kanye said, “no one man should have all that power.”
When a person (any person) goes unchecked, the pattern shows that they eventually spiral out of control. Particularly when the person that could potentially spiral is in a position of high authority, such as the President of a country for example. The unquestioned authority has historically come with forever lasting consequences and desperately needs containment and accountability.