New Yorker critic at large Kelefa Sanneh dives into our obsession with reality television:
While today MTV’s roster has more than a dozen reality-based television shows such as Jersey Shore, The Real World, and a host of others, the genre itself dates back to 1971 when PBS broadcast 12 episodes of ‘An American Family,’ which followed the Louds of Santa Barbara, and chronicled the divorce and separation of parents Bill and Pat.
From this point it was two decades before MTV’s ‘The Real World’ launched the concept of reality TV into ubiquity. There has been no looking back.
In an era of televised precocity—ambitious HBO dramas, cunningly self-aware sitcoms—reality shows still provide a fat target for anyone seeking symptoms or causes of American idiocy; the popularity of unscripted programming has had the unexpected effect of ennobling its scripted counterpart. The same people who brag about having seen every episode of “Friday Night Lights” will brag, too, that they have never laid eyes on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Reality television is the television of television.
How much of social-mediated lives would we tolerate were it not for the pervasiveness of reality TV? Are not the revolutions of the Arab Spring in some ways one enormous, unscripted drama, perfect for mass consumption? What can we expect to follow such a powerful cultural force?
For media scholars, journalists, culture watchers and the curious, Sanneh’s thorough analysis is definitely worth a read.