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I know, at first it seems that ethics and reality TV are about as connected as fire and water – one being the antidote for the other. But perhaps it’s not as simple as that, a conclusion supported by the recent spate of articles arguing that reality TV producers need to create, and commit, to a code of ethics which would govern their shows. Given the amazingly poor, and often self-destructive kinds of human behavior featured in such shows, it’s not surprising that more reasonable people are beginning to question how producers treat the casts of these shows and what they do to stimulate some of the more truly pathetic antics that make up what often count as the shows’ highlights.
This debate has erupted especially in light of the news that Russell Armstrong, featured in Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, committed suicide after complaining to family members about the ”overwhelming” pressure of life in the spotlight.
Such questions become especially acute as reality TV reaches beyond adult performers, and features children in what are sometimes pretty sick situations. Another current example showed up in “Toddlers & Tiaras” and the case of a four year old child who was paraded on the stage in a Dolly Parton outfit complete with fake boobs and a “tush enhancement.”
This is sick stuff, but only slightly more extreme than what passes for normal on this show, which focuses on kids ranging in age from baby to pre-adolescent, competing in contests which reward them for dressing up as street walkers. Okay, that may be a bit harsh, but only a bit. These pageants demand that little girls slink across a stage in adult cocktail wear, swimsuits, and other apparel which puts these shows on the edge of kiddie porn. That’s just not right.
Suggestions for the content of the proposed code of ethics include limiting the appearance of children, assuring regular sleep for those who do appear, limiting cast access to alcohol, and guaranteeing contact with family and friends not associated with the shows. These are all reasonable enough suggestions, and it’s hard to imagine that such shows wouldn’t retain their enormous appeal even if they were implemented. But even if implemented, such a code is only one third of the answer, and the easiest one at that.
It’s easy to blame the companies who produce these shows because it shifts all responsibility away from us and onto what are, for most people, nameless, faceless entities. Blaming them and only them is the perfect way to avoid responsibility while sounding off about ethics – talk about an ethical short fall! The bigger and more difficult ethical issues with reality TV lay with those who perform in them and the audiences who watch them.
The producers need to do better, to be sure, but so do the cast members. Demanding more of them, would also need to be part of any truly ethical reform process. Who are the people who perform on these shows? Does anyone evaluate their mental health before allowing them to go on air? Why is nobody making demands about the ethical obligations which they need to assume before being allowed to participate in such shows? But that leaves the third, and most important part of this equation – us.
We, the American viewing public, have real power here. If we really wanted this to end, we would stop heckling the producers and simply turn off the shows. Television is a market, and if the market for exploitative reality TV dried up, exploitative reality TV would go away. If they didn’t make money for their producers, the producers would stop producing them.
Of course following the above course of action means giving up something many millions of us really love. Exploitative reality TV is like the worst kind of junk food which we almost all of us crave at one time or another – really tasty in the moment and incredibly unhealthy if consumed in large quantities or on any kind of regular basis. But also like junk food, the American public is not simply going to give up on this stuff, and pretending that we will is silly.
My own healthy, well-adjusted, generally quite successful teenage daughters are occasional viewers of some of these shows. As one of them said to me, “when I finish my homework at midnight, and my brain is totally fried, it’s what I want to watch.” I get it. It’s how I feel about pizza and beer from time to time.
Rather than bemoan the existence of most of this programming (the sexualization of children really should be banned without exception, in my view), laying off all the blame on others, why not look to ourselves, and admit that we want these shows, but will consume less of them. Think of it as a TV diet. Like any successful diet, it respects both that which we want and that which we need.
The ethical thing to do is always about doing better given what can’t or won’t be changed. It demands a mindful response, even when conditions are not ideal. That is what we should demand from the producers of reality TV, and from those who appear on it, and from all those who watch it.