Reality TV: Making spectacles of ourselves

To the discerning onlooker, Greek public life appears to offer one delight after another, presenting a seemingly endless series of pratfalls like some endless Charlie Chaplin movie where the only thing of certainty is that the supply of banana peels on which our protagonists slip will never dwindle. Over the last two weeks alone, we have been regaled with the sight of the State Broadcast Authority becoming a bit player in television’s seedy «reality shows» and a soccer fracas that reached the pretty point of the government and management of Panathinaikos soccer club trading invective. It is as if no one heeds the wise old Greek saying that those who get caught up in chicken feed get eaten by the chickens. It happens with dulling regularity: When an opportunity arises for our institutions to trivialize themselves, they do precisely that – either failing to carry out their mission or by overreacting when they do. This ranges from the inconceivable amateurism of Greek government officials trying vainly to find refuge for Abdullah Ocalan (the Kurdish rebel leader whose faith in the Greeks brought him to death row in a Turkish jail) to the government’s total ban on electronic games because of the possibility that some of them were being fiddled with to facilitate illegal gambling. One wonders, when looking around at the Greeks getting ahead in their lives (raising families, building careers, buying houses and cars, trying to catch up with living standards in the rest of Europe), how they put up with the farce that they see being played out on their television channels every night. It is almost as if we are living in two worlds – the one in which people are leading their real lives and the other in which the television channels are showing what they believe to be real lives. Perhaps the reason that we do not see mobs rampaging through the television channels is that the audience takes the programs and pompous pundits a lot less seriously than the television people think they do. Over the last few months, Greece has been caught up in the international craze of so-called «reality television» of the «Big Brother» variety, in which a group of ne’er-do-well couch potatoes stays cooped up in a television studio made up to look like a comfortable house, whiling away endless hours with endless chattering about themselves and the fact that they may be the next to be ejected from this life; something like Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians, but with the added woe of their demise not being permanent (which would relieve us of their presence) but rather an introduction into a twilight zone where their ubiquitous image will feed the flame of their very transitory fame until the next product comes along to gobble them up. Like Pharaoh’s bad dream coming true, in the very lean years of our intellectual history ever leaner cows are eating up the previous lean cows. But what is worse is that everyone has taken these shows so seriously. Antenna television’s introduction of the genre last fall was deemed such a success that Mega Channel rushed to emulate it with the variation called «Bar» (in which the potatoes are made to get off the couch in order to lean against a bar and thereby work for their supper), pushing Antenna, in turn, to introduce a second edition of «Big Brother.» This time, both shows started off presenting a greater diminishing of their players’ privacy – players who went to ever greater lengths to bare parts of their anatomy or private lives in order to make themselves more marketable and, therefore, more durable members of these peculiar endurance games. This, in a country where abortions are the preferred form of birth control, was deemed horrific by the news media, which went into a frenzy of hypocritical puritanism while many papers and other television channels did their best to cash in on the voyeuristic pleasures of the shows by showing extensive footage from them and by running commentaries. This prompted the chairman of the State Broadcast Authority to confide to a friend, who then blurted it out on one of the country’s yellower television talk shows, that he had decided to ban «Big Brother» and «Bar.» This was done without consultation with the other eight members of the council, which has been enshrined in the constitution as an independent regulatory body (and which, accordingly, also represents many of the interests involved in the lucrative and politically fruitful broadcast market). Having overreacted and being completely alone in challenging the two biggest television stations in the land, the council chairman, Vassilis Lambridis, came under fire for acting undemocratically. He had miscalculated, apparently believing that the level of media outrage at the trash shows justified drastic action. He had not considered that some remedies are worse than the affliction. But worse, he had not realized that media critics have no obligation to be consistent: Carping about the illness does not necessarily mean that they will applaud the doctor. In the end, Lambridis was outvoted, overwhelmingly, by all eight other members of his council, leading to his resignation and the continuation of the reality shows. He was ejected by the votes of his fellow players. Just like the unsavory participants in «Bar» and «Big Brother.» Life steals the show, as Big Brother’s slogan puts it. Similarly, following last Sunday’s clash of eternal rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, in which the Piraeus team managed to equalize off a penalty during injury time, Panathinaikos officials and fans beat up the referee. Panathinaikos chairman Angelos Philippidis, beside himself with rage at what he called biased refereeing, called on the prime minister to intervene and for the government to suspend the championship. Instead of maintaining a stony silence, government spokesman Christos Protopappas replied that Philippidis should not let his political ambitions get the better of him – falling back on the government’s tried and tested method of blaming everything bad in the country on the conservative opposition party. Having seen a good rumble in our soccer jungle, the government could obviously not resist temptation and leaped right in. But perhaps the most disheartening thing about this whole affair was the fact that despite all the indications that the derby could lead to violence, too little was done to anticipate the incidents that did erupt. It is almost like a curse, a Greek version of Murphy’s Law, that nothing will be done to prevent anything from going wrong. The result, apart from being highly entertaining, is that these endless wars over trivia result in a society in which everything is done at fever pitch. People are continually shouting at each other because, from the top downward, there is no serious classification of problems. Our television channels, for the most part, reflect this when they mix up in an unholy mess the serious and the meaningless, the sacred and the profane. In doing this, they abdicate their mission, which is to illustrate, to entertain, to elucidate, and to explain our world and the options that we face. Instead, like an imbecile with a camera rushing from fight to fight, from buttock to breast, from prostitute to priest, they show us reality in a way that is so incoherent as to be nothing. A piercing stare at zero leads to no greater understanding of numbers. That does not mean that zero is not there, but rather that it is nothing without context, without contrast. As our institutions and officials have repeatedly shown, our reality too is something in which context and understanding are lacking. So can we really blame the journalists for not doing their job? Life has stolen the show. Or is it the show that has stolen life?

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.