In its most generality, Reality television is “a genre of television programming that documents unscripted situations and actual occurrences, and often features a previously unknown cast” and to speak particularly, we might name “Roadies”, “Indian Idol” or “MasterChef India”, to just name a few. From its inception in India, through a Band-hunt sponsored by Channel V and later with Amitabh Bachhan’s “Kaun Banega Crorepati”, reality TV has worked up its way to be one of the highest TRP grossing phenomenon that play themselves out on the screen. Inspired in most cases from its Western counterparts, or one may go as far as to say that imitated from them (as is the wont in today’s silver screen productions), reality shows have prominently featured on the average Indian’s to-watch list every day. In this article, we try to deconstruct its meteoric rise and of course attempt to do an effective criticism of the genre.
The foremost reason behind the popularity of the shows is that it is viewed mostly as an alternative to traditional scripted shows which, according to a television insider, “remains dominated by variants on the police procedural… in which a stock group of characters (ethnically, sexually, and generationally diverse) grapples with endless versions of the same dilemma.” On the other hand, reality shows offer the myriad mesh of human emotions with a tinge of spontaneity. We have fear, friendship, success, failure, drama, melodrama and what-not handed out to us through the experiences of a group of participants which unfold every day without any premeditated thrust in that particular direction; and the men could be as ordinary as you and me. Here comes the next important feather in its cap; reality television is easier for people to identify with. The show starrers are projected as inhabiting the same universe as all the audience that laps up the shows every week. There is no implied stardom in the participants; the shows just chronicle the rise of a common man to fame using only his talents. This vision of a series along with man’s natural urge to see a good rivalry is what does it for the shows. Of course, here one might embark upon a debate as to how “real” the shows are. There have been numerous allegations claiming that reality television often uses pre-fixed scripting and repeated takes and re-takes to create specific situations of adversity and drama that whets public interest. Sometimes, even more serious complaints of whole shows being contrived had also been raised. However, such claims that hover around the grey region of truth and false have been often seen to do more good than harm on the production front. The house wins in this case.
The next point of interest in the case at hand would be how these shows appeal to the younger generation of our country. Studies have continuously revealed that five to six out of ten most popular shows among young people are reality shows. I believe that the main reason behind this would be the fair dosage of sex, violence, cuss words and a glimpse of what some would call the “hip lifestyle” that these shows provide. Normal scripted shows on television would not tread on such territories. “Roadies”, I think, should be a fair mention here; media has dubbed it as the show that made Indian television grow up, and nothing has contributed more to its résumé than the adrenaline charged ensemble it had notched up. To add to this, there is also the enticing glitter of instant fame being handed down in a platter that people see in such productions; however transient that fame might be. The idea that a “rags-to-riches” story might one day be theirs is enough to keep them hooked to the screen. It is common knowledge that people in and around our age bracket often emulate mannerisms displayed in the programs and much of their ideas about the world are shaped through what they learn or observe therein. If a certain category of shows hold such sway over the youth, one might safely pass the verdict that it is be the next big thing. And that is what has actually happened.
My concerns however, rest on a different line. These shows intrinsically detach the art from the artist. Encouraging very strong rivalry among the participating group, the focus shifts mainly towards the excellence in performance and not in understanding what is being performed. This is more evident when we see the shows dedicated to little children. They have excellent reflexes that know to bend, to bow or to quiver at a certain note or a beat but the reason for such digressions from or embellishments to the normal run of play is quite lost upon them. We have instead an excellent performer, a robot that can reproduce to dizzying closeness but cannot produce. This dehumanization of performing arts or of anything under the sun that the shows are inadvertently promoting is what piques me.
On a closing note, an analysis of reality television can be viewed as an interesting exercise in human psyche. The tendency of men to patronize seething competition between individuals, voyeurism, the simple minded rags-to-riches story or the incentive of easy fame is what makes such shows flourish. Concerns might be raised, but they are here to stay.