Reality TV: Is it just a slice of life?

Since mid-September, 16 Greeks aged 24-60 have been acting the part of castaways on a small, distant atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Of the three reality shows screened on television this season, Mega Channel’s «Survivor» had the highest ratings, outstripping Antenna’s homegrown «Mission» and the gut-wrenching American «Fear Factor» (also on Antenna). During the summer, Antenna aired the first three cycles of the American version of «Survivor,» which, rather than undermining Mega’s show, appeared to boost public interest instead. «Big Brother» (BB) may be the mother of all reality shows, but «Survivor,» which just completed its seventh cycle, is the gem in the reality TV crown, enjoying widespread success worldwide. The most striking difference between «BB» and «Survivor» is the setting. «BB» is set in a prefabricated home/studio with mikes hanging from the ceilings and two-way mirrors shielding cameras, high fences and a intense feeling of confinement. In contrast, «Survivor» gives a sense of absolute spatial freedom though in fact the set is also very much confined by invisible (to viewers) hand-held cameras and strict regulations concerning the players’ every action. In «BB,» there was a communications room from which players could send messages to the production team or the outside world. In «Survivor,» the players make their confessions facing an invisible cameraman, surrounded by an exotic background. In «BB,» the cameras were fixed in place, while in «Survivor,» they pursue the moving target and often show aerial or underwater shots, giving viewers the sensation of watching an action-packed movie (or, rather, a B-movie) or a jungle documentary. Unsullied nature takes the place of the gilded cage, direction is a lot more skillful, the editing plays a more decisive role and it all costs a lot more money. Reality TV shows normally screen edited scenes from the previous day, or, at most, the current week (as in «The Farm» or «Mission»). In «Survivor» though, the scenes we watch at any given time actually belong to the past and viewers’ interest is not so much focused on what will happen tomorrow, but on the players themselves and on speculation on which among them has already won. Therefore, a shroud of mystery covers the players of the TV drama. In the USA, at least, before the start of the show, players were made to sign four contracts committing them to secrecy over the four finalists. Confidentiality contracts were also signed by the players’ close relatives, while some of the terms in these contracts are a lifetime commitment. The fine for breaking the confidentiality agreement in the USA has reached $5 million, according to a report in The New York Times. We assume that in Greece it is somewhat lower since even the cash prize (200,000 euros) has been trimmed from its American equivalent to be on a par with local standards. However, in order to contain information leaks, Mega recently sent an extrajudicial order to «Survivor» players asking them to honor the terms of their contracts. The price for breaking their silence is disqualification from the final, four-player round which has yet to be held. From ‘why’ to ‘how’ In the fall of 2001, when the first reality TV show was aired in Greece, one of the most common questions asked was: «Why is this genre so successful?» It is «subversive, modern, progressive television,» a microcosm of real society, some answered. Others noted that it was a simulation of the competitiveness and cannibalism of real life. Moralistic babble abounded, while others maintained a cooler stance, saying, for example, that «it’s a boring show that has nothing to do with me» and «that’s what people want, in Greece and elsewhere.» Today the question is why do some reality TV shows shoot straight for the stars while others flounder and sink. In comparison to indoor reality TV shows, «Survivor» is what a multinational supermarket is in relation to the corner shop or mini market. But the basic principles governing the genre (the absurdity of the rules, the god-like power of Production, backstabbing among friends, voyeurism) are applicable anywhere and at any time. Reality TV is the television of cruelty and cynicism, and all that changes is the packaging and the player’s ilk. «Survivor» is successful, not simply because it offers the stressed-out urbanite a slice of the primitive and exotic, but also because it represents the dark epic of collectivity. Its realization involves a high level of cooperation and coordination between hundreds of people equipped with experience, intelligence and know-how. The music, editing, «casting,» the selection of the various tasks and races, all the details require thousands of hours of mental and physical exertion, equal to that behind the «scientific» promotion of products in a big supermarket. The charm in the legend of Robinson Crusoe is indestructible. Nowadays, survival under harsh natural conditions is a dynamic offshoot of the tourism and publishing industries. The 20,000 lives claimed by last summer’s heat wave in Western Europe reveals, in a tragically ironic way, just how ludicrous television’s «survivors» really are. The survival instinct and desire to succeed permit everything: betrayal, hypocrisy, adherence to absurd regulations, consensual humiliation. The survival of the fittest (and, therefore, eradication of the weak) dogma finds applications not just in reality TV shows, but in the social and professional arena as well.