The new ‘para-reality’ culture has come to replace traditional over-the-fence gossiping

The scene unfolds at a university entrance exam center in western Attica during the Panhellenic Examinations. Students are milling about the hall at around eight in the morning, killing time until nine o’clock when the exams begin, and they are playacting scenes from «Fame Story.» One student plays Kalomira, speaking Greek with an American accent and blowing kisses to make-believe fans. Two other students are acting out a scene between players Maro and Costas, while others are aping the music academy’s tutors and judges. They are singing and laughing. «Last night, I was studying, having dinner and watching ‘Fame Story,’» says one 18-year-old. «All at the same time.» The slogan «Bread, Education, Freedom,» which 30 years ago was a battle cry for today’s parents, has thus returned in mutated form in 2004. Bread is represented by the pizza brought by delivery boys, education is the anxiety to get enough points to enter one university or another and to commit facts to memory, while freedom is represented by the ability to choose between different TV stations: We can choose between a talent show or an agricultural documentary (as Mega Channel has dubbed its show «The Farm»). We can choose whether we will laugh at the antics of Cilla on «The Farm» or who we will vote off a game. The older generation, too weary to play, improvise or make fun of it all, can participate in the reality craze by reading the press or watching the television shows which dedicate a large section of their content to these games. If reality shows are the modern-day substitute to the old neighborhood, «para-reality» culture, in printed or electronic form, has come to replace old-fashioned, over-the-fence gossiping. Casting is key The main component in reality shows, however, is casting, a word that used to be applied only for professional purposes, but which now, with the advent of reality shows, has become a household term. The identity of a show and the chemistry between the people involved are pivotal to its success or failure. One American academic points out that the director counts most in cinema, the screenwriter in television and the casting agent in reality shows. «Casting Reality TV, No Longer a Hunch, Becomes a Science,» reads a headline in the The New York Times from March 28 in a story on the reality TV show «The Apprentice» carried by America’s NBC. Of the tens of thousands of applicants for the American show, just a few hundred are selected and they are then put through six grueling interviews and asked to fill out reams of questionnaires. Next there are medical tests and an IQ test, given by the production group, which has little to set it apart from those given to recruit spies to the secret service. In Greece, however, the casting process is not quite as scientific. It is left more or less to the last minute and conducted mostly on a hunch, while some insiders say the production often gives spots to its «own people.» Introducing the buxom Afro-Swedish dancer Cilla to «The Farm» in the middle of the race was an example of an improvised tactic to boost ratings, but, contrary to producers’ hopes, did not bring about the results they expected. Instead, the choice of Smaro, a hearty, 32-year-old farmer who is not afraid to speak her mind, has received a very positive response from viewers. The selection of players for «Fame Story,» on the other hand, has proved entirely successful, with a medical student, a 21-year-old Albanian girl, a 19-year-old Greek American, a 33-year-old Greek Canadian, an outspoken homosexual youth, a hip-hop singer from Oresteiada, a 19-year-old psalm singer and teacher of Byzantine music, and a psychology student at the Aristotle University. They have selected a range of singers of pop, rock and Greek laiko, dynamic characters, easygoing types, the modest and the passionate, workaholics and layabouts, players who are involved in a relationship on the outside and others who are single; an amalgam of characters that promises dramatic developments and intrigues. With the help of all the other shows surrounding them, reality shows have become a forum through which numerous existent social issues are expressed, such as racial and sexual discrimination. Unfortunately, the manner in which these issues are addressed is flippant, inviting extreme reactions from all sides and creating absolute camps: homophobes vs gay rights activists, racist vs anti-racism campaigners, those who would rather see Kalomira leave the show vs those who want Costas off instead. In the meantime, the prolific presence of players’ friends and relatives on the panels of television shows tries to dispel the idea that the institution of the family is in crisis. «Reality-parents» encourage their children «to be themselves» and to «express themselves,» while many become involved in heated arguments sparked by gossip or in debates with other parents, while the smiling hostesses of daytime TV look on and act the referee. A reality show, according to one former player, «has to sell its characters.» Therefore, it has to create and broadcast conflicts, alliances, intrigues, passions, envies, conspiracies and cliques. X makes a pass at Y and he responds, at least initially. Z flirts with N, but maybe it is a strategic move rather than real interest. But, despite the production’s interventions and the tacky decor, the players of «Fame Story» have won the respect of the public. Most, if not all, have strong personalities, they are talented, they have some musical studies and very good vocal skills. Some know that they are being made a spectacle of, but they also know that this is the price they will have to pay for a spot among the stars. And their efforts are not very different from those exerted by thousands of their contemporaries on a daily basis, within a different environment perhaps, on different terms and with different conditions, maybe in less glamorous settings, but with equal difficulty. They toil, obey orders, sometimes even rebel, they ponder their options, betray and are betrayed. They accept the voracious terms of competition and adapt to the ridiculousness of the entire affair, while at the same time trying to salvage something of their dignity.