Wednesday, July 1, 2009

When Reality Hits Reality Television (and Vice Versa)

Remember that reality show that aired in 2003 called "The Contender?" It was a reality television program based around boxing, and hosted by none other than Sylvester Stallone. It's plot was sort of typical, where a group of boxers compete until only one is left standing and ultimately the winner. After being eliminated relatively early from the program, 23 year old Najai Turpin committed suicide just a couple weeks before the premiere aired on television.

This was the first point in which I began to think about the (sometimes volatile) relationship between reality and reality television. It was then that I began asking some very practical questions: can the program even continue with the outcome already known (that sounds heartless, I know, but I don't mean for it to)? The series finale is supposed to be live, and all of the "contenders" are supposed to be present. Would they continue or cancel it all?

These thoughts and questions only returned with the reality program "Jon and Kate Plus 8," a program on TLC based around a couple who has eight children (six of which were born sextuplets). You probably have heard of the show due to the recent news surrounding it. The show looks at the lives of the family and how they manage to take care of so many children--the day-to-day triumphs and struggles of a family of that magnitude.

I'll admit that I don't like this show much at all--Beth enjoys it, and so over the last year we've watched it here and there. It wasn't until recently (admittedly because of the hype surrounding their marriage) that we began paying more attention. Over the last half year or so there have been rumors of infidelity (moreso on Jon's part but Kate hasn't been immune to the attacks). Watching this unfolding divide in their marriage that eventually made it into their television show (in fact, the premiere of season 5 actually promoted their difficulties) once again brought up these questions about the relationship between reality and reality television.

Before I go any further I do want to say that this post has nothing to do with an argument for or against reality television. I don't care. It also is not condoning or condemning the public view into the Gosselin's private life. That is a difficult issue--but I will say in the defense of the public that the family did invite cameras into their home to FILM THEIR LIVES FOR NATIONAL TELEVISION. Typically--and even with the Gosselins--I'm not a fan of paying attention to celebrities' lives. I don't think we should care for one thing, but I don't think it's any of our business. But for a family that appears on television once a week to say "leave us alone-- how DARE you pay any attention to us," is a little bit like biting the hand that feeds. I'm not at all trying to justify the paparazzi that has plagued their lives, but I'm a little surprised at how they didn't really expect this.

I digress. All I'm interested in (for now) is exploring the relationship between reality and reality television. "Jon and Kate Plus 8" have a theme where they say "It's a crazy life.... but it's OUR life." What once was a program dealing with a married couple raising a full house of eight children, now reality has shifted the focus--if you watch the show you'll notice how there are more discussions ABOUT the relationship of the couple as opposed to the family itself or ways they raise their children. What the show presumed from the outset was this family that would stick together. There is nothing wrong with this presumption, but it just goes to show that reality television does not dictate reality.

Or does it? But more than that, how has reality television changed their reality? It impacts their lives on obvious immediate levels--you know, the cameramen and crew that are at their house nearly every day filming much of their waking moments. The fact that people are present (and not just anybody, but people holding cameras and boom mics recording their very lives) automatically change reality. I can guarantee that if I'm put in front of a camera that potentially millions of people will see the end result, I'm going to put my best foot forward and then some. Even when the cameras become normal and I get used to being filmed, I'll probably lose some of my act, but you can bet I'll still be acting differently.

But think of the other ways reality television has changed their reality. Jon and Kate earn $75,000 per episode. And I'm pretty sure when they go on little adventures for the show (like that time a year ago when they *ahem* renewed their vows in Hawaii) TLC foots the bill. Reality television has changed their reality radically. They're now living in a multi-million dollar house (undoubtedly purchased with money they made from their show). Kate has written a couple of books, and is writing another, and most of the success is due to the television show.

I don't have any problem with their success, but I'm just fascinated by the fact that had the reality show not ever have taken place, their lives would be dramatically different right now. Reality television has completely altered their reality.

I promise I'm not trying to place the blame on their show, but all this makes you wonder: Did the show also contribute to their pending separation? Kate (in their last episode where they announced their split to over 10 million viewers) staunchly said that she believes this all would have played out the way it did regardless of the show or not. But she has to say that. I'm not coming down either way, and I don't think anyone can. I'm not going to try to pin down their motives. But their television show will undoubtedly play a part in their decisions and how they handle the future.

And of course, the show must go on.