Reality TV’s appeal " and benefits

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By Janny Wilcke

Do you watch the reality shows on television?  The number and variety of topics for such programs boggle the mind. Yet it seems as if there’s a promo for a new reality show every week. There are already shows about cops, tattoo parlors, pawn shops, children’s beauty pageants, large families, little people, women who go into labor with no prior awareness that they were pregnant, women with no prior awareness that being pregnant is not the best choice for them, dysfunctional families that don’t realize they’re dysfunctional, swapping of wives or mothers, the renovation of houses (or trucks), cooking and grilling competitions, wilderness survival, restaurant stops, cake making, dating competitions, reuniting family members - the list is endless.

The other morning while finishing a second cup of coffee, my mind wandered to a reality show I had seen the day before while walking on my treadmill. The show, “Little Miss Perfect,” followed the preparation of two little contestants for the Little Miss Perfect Beauty Pageant and culminated in the Pageant itself. I must admit that I was intrigued by it all.

As my husband pointed out to me, reality shows have proliferated over the past few years partly because they are so inexpensive for the networks to produce. But those cost issues aside, these shows could not succeed without an enthusiastic audience, and apparently there are enough folks tuning in to keep them on the air, and to encourage new ones.

A bit surprised at my own fascination for the Little-Miss-Perfect reality show, I poured a third cup of coffee and tried to figure out why so many of us are so easily swept up in the lives of others. I was amazed at the time and money the pageant moms spent on grooming their little girls for this pageant. The tots are taught a certain way to walk, smile, answer questions, and perform various routines. They are artificially tanned, and wear hair pieces, copious makeup, and thousand-dollar dresses. Some of them even wear a mouthpiece to mask the awkwardness of pre-adolescent teeth. These little ones wiggle their hips in precocious dance numbers and blow kisses in hopes of winning the hearts of the judges.

What, I asked myself, could possibly be the appeal in all this for me?

Reality shows feature activities and lifestyles that are frequently beyond the scope of the average person’s experience. In a sense, they are larger than life, and so we viewers are like the “rubber neckers” who slow down at traffic accidents straining to see the wreckage.  We are fascinated by the emotional meltdowns of rich and privileged housewives, by the chaos of raising sextuplets, and by the challenges of surviving in the wilderness. We eagerly tune in for the latest dramas in the lives of the Kardashians, and the most recent adventures of the Duggar family.  For weeks, we follow our favorites on “American Idol,” and we root for our choice on “The Bachelor.” We watch reality TV not only because we are curious but also because it draws us out of ourselves, pulling our attention away from the sometimes boring routines or troubles in our own lives.  We often come away from such shows thinking that, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” These shows can make us feel better about our own lot in life.

The participants in reality shows have occasionally been criticized for forfeiting their privacy to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viewers. And, while adults certainly have a right to satisfy their cravings for the limelight, the inclusion of children is a sore point for some critics. But that aside, reality TV does seem to offer a benefit to viewers.

I try not to be judgmental, but I am forced to confess that my self-esteem got a modest boost as a result of watching those pageant moms. I may not have been a perfect mother but at least I didn’t compel my daughters to do that. On the other hand, these women were giving their daughters plenty of attention. Are they any worse than Little League fathers? Besides, the little girls seem to be enjoying themselves. In any event, that whole pageant scene was new to me, and so engrossing that it got me off my couch to walk four healthy miles on a treadmill on an empty stomach. Hey, I wonder what the Kardashians will be doing tonight.