The debate over whether or not television as a positive or negative effect on society has endured for more than sixty years. The latest causality in this war: reality TV. Critics lambast the genre, claiming it’s a choreographed illusion that celebrates distasteful and dysfunctional behavior, feeds our voyeuristic urges, and siphons intelligence, while enthusiasts celebrate it as a method of entertainment. So, who’s right?
The Worst of Human Behavior
Psychologist George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania developed the “cultivation theory,” which asserts that prolonged exposure to television can shape viewer’s concept of the world. Basically, the more television someone watches, the more he will believe the world is as it’s presented by the TV. I can see how this might apply to older generations who didn’t grow up in the Information Age. Take my grandpa, for example. He watches nothing but the news and he’s convinced the world is a violent and dangerous place. I’d probably think that, too, if all I watched were reports of thefts, shooting, and terrorism.
I wonder if the “cultivation theory” applies to reality TV shows. If I did nothing but watch “Big Brother” all day, would I start to believe there were cameras scattered throughout my home and my family was conspiring to vote me out of the house?
The idea that reality TV nourishes voyeuristic behavior sounds like a great argument. Who would want to raise a society of Peeping Toms? Thankfully, this criticism has no merit. Voyeurism is, by definition (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/voyeurism), “the practice of obtaining sexual gratification by looking at sexual objects or acts, especially secretively.” The key word here is secretively. All voyeuristic pleasure is removed if the person being watched knows she’s being watched.
A Threat to Intelligence
Reality TV critics claim that these shows pander to the ill-witted and somehow manage to make the rest of us dumber for watching. I don’t think it’s possible to lose brain cells or cognitive functioning simply from tuning into a TV show. I think a far greater concern for critics is the sense of superiority viewers derive from watching reality TV. The truth is many people watch these shows to feel better about their own lives. What does that say about our society’s ability to promote a healthy self-image?
Critics of reality TV argue that television should be used to education, inform, and enlighten viewers. I agree television is an excellent medium for teaching, decimating information, and promoting the arts, but it is also a vehicle for entertainment. It’s a way to peer into another world for amusement and fun. Television offers viewers a needed break from the daily pressures of life; it’s a healthy occupation for the mind.
Tyler is a writer for USCharterService.com. He enjoys watching and writing about Cable TV.