Reality shows return with a vengeance following a summer of television terrorism

In fairy tales, the shepherdess marries the prince; in Greek movies of the 1960s, the poor-but-honest civil engineer becomes the son-in-law of the rich contractor. Today, an ordinary person can turn from cook to conductor, from saleswoman to cover girl – from a universal nobody to a somebody known throughout Greece. This promise of distinction and fame is what is sold to thousands of candidate players who pay not with money but with their voluntary seclusion in a house, bar, farm or gym. Last year, the clones of «Big Brother» appeared to be even more noxious than their progenitor. Reality was truly stranger than fiction, with overtones of Eastern slave markets. In a German show, «Winning Employment,» shown by Neun Live channel in Munich, the players, picked from the 4 million unemployed, carried out certain tasks live, and the audience – via the telephone – voted for the one they felt was worthy of hire by the firm sponsoring of the game. The contract was triumphantly signed on the spot. Such extremes are unlikely in Greece, this season at least. We will not see people crawling on all fours, forced to eat from a bucket full of live worms or boiled sheep’s eyes, or be covered with rats, as happened last year in the American show, «Fear Factor.» Whatever the contestants do will be for their own good. They will exercise, swim in the crystal-clear waters of a swimming pool, milk goats and eat healthy foods. The channels and TV production companies will lavish on them the care and affection given to thoroughbreds, not to humble beasts of burden. They will become the golden girls and boys of spin-off shows and the lucky ones will become the idols of this year’s season. The producers will not ask the players to suppress their personalities; on the contrary, they will be asked to lay all bare and, in a matter of weeks, are expected to have shattered all taboos, complexes and inhibitions. What right, then, do we have to mewl faint protests, since these selfsame players accept with joy the terms of the game, accept their exposure to the lens and the microphone (whether it be for 24 hours a day or for less, it makes no difference), accept becoming television channel fodder? We have a right to raise our voices in protest insofar as reality shows are not an innocent form of entertainment. They reproduce and impose models and attitudes which go beyond the bounds of television and justify a social Darwinism which promotes, not the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the most popular, ratings-wise. Moreover, reality shows are cheap television, ideal for difficult times, since they demand little, either from viewers, or from producers. It is sufficient to have a basic recipe and cheap raw material in the form of volunteers. The November 17 serial over the summer was – quite literally – a cheap information program, which adopted the aesthetics and concepts of reality shows, with some variations, of course. As life within four walls steals the show, as advertising for «Big Brother» put it, so sedentary reporting and anonymous sources have stolen political analysis, substantiated facts, investigation and knowledge of history, while adjectives, shallow emotions and cheap indignation have swallowed up substance. Reality shows have their underpinnings in the insecurity, cannibalism and competitiveness which imbue almost all human relations. It is not by chance that reality shows find a warm response in countries that have been brought to their knees, like Argentina. Authentic offspring of economic and social crisis, reality shows are also the products of the inability of television to take advantage of, in a modern and creative fashion, the marvelous technological opportunities of the medium. The televisual presentation of November 17 has caused the whys and wherefores of the case to disappear, has pulverized the truth and underlined the absence of political will to root out the velvet terrorism of television. The sanctioning of laughter – to which satirical artists aspire – is welcome and necessary, but how much more necessary is the avoidance of the absurd. Tragedy turned farce The key words and phrases in the showbiz reality shows were withdrawal, vote, communication room, strategy, etc. In the soap opera that our war on terrorism became, these words are: corroborative deposition, leak, to name names, visitor’s room, etc. In the first-generation reality shows, we saw the studio house empty of its occupants one by one, while in the terrorist version, we saw the special cells at Korydallos Prison fill up. The figure of the father is a prominent one in both types of show. «Antenna is our father,» said one of the participants, «and no father forgets his children.» On the contrary, Savvas complained because the substitute father, Yotopoulos, did not acknowledge his children. Relatives are also ubiquitous, while a plethora of terror experts crowd, at little cost, the television talks shows and eat away at supposedly precious viewing time. The commonplace details of the everyday existence of the inmates in any shape or form (whether in Paeania, Galatsi or Korydallos) are exaggerated and turned into news: The participants in «Big Brother» fried loukoumades, the others ate spaghetti with minced meat. Sophia had a fight with Mary on «Bar,» Yotopoulos looked cross-eyed at Patroklos. Virtual reality has steamrolled over everything, turning tragedy into farce and vice versa.