The new face of Reality

IN Media Practice | 29/10/2004
The new face of Reality



As Indian Idol makes it debut, its time to examine an idea which is being regurgitated at the speed of light today, by media moguls and networks hungry for success. 



Zainab Mahmood



Back in the 80’s MTV aired a revolutionary show which caught on like wild fire around the world and became the most popular show for an entire generation. We have come a long way since the days of The Real world which made celebrities out of ordinary young Americans thrown together in an apartment, getting along, getting frisky, exhibiting racial tensions, a fantastic mix of high emotions and drama, until it turned sour and lost its originality and its audience by the late 90’s.


But what it did was, sow the seeds for an idea which is being regurgitated at the speed of light today, by media moguls and networks hungry for success.  Big brother, emerged in the late 90’s, only this time, the cameras were on 24/7 and the contestants were competing to win an enormous amount of money, whilst cut off from the rest of the world, their fate decided by the views of the audience through interactive voting. Ordinary people in all parts of the world, the States, United Kingdom, Germany and several European countries as well as South Africa, shot to fame in days, through their appearances on Big Brother, redefining not only the concept of television but of celebrities. The durability and reach of this kind of stardom has catapulted with television channels, gossip magazines and talk show hosts clamouring to invite reality TV contestants to satiate the audiences craze with their lives.


The sporty and more outdoor-sy reality shows such as Survivor and Fear Factor saw participants engaging in physically and emotionally straining activities, again for the sake of prize money that was enough for them to do just about anything (eating animal intestines, lying in a tub of dead insects etc). But they didn’t quite catch on as fast as the shows with a flair for "romance" did. Joe Millionaire, Mr Personality (hosted by the infamous Monica Lewinsky) The Bachelor (ette) and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé relied on the Darwinian survival of the cutest strategy.


These reality shows reeled in millions of viewers worldwide, hook, line and sinker, who sat glued to their TV screens season after season watching how a single woman/man selected their soul mate from a group of 15 contestants over a period of time. Getting intimate with each until they found the one person they wanted to spend the rest of their life with. Ripe with bitchiness, politics, dirty games and gossip these shows had higher ratings with each season, proving to the world that not only have our definition of entertainment changed but apparently love can be found anyway, anywhere, even through a competition where women/men have to demean themselves.


 Joe Millionaire not only promised love, but promised that whoever "Joe" picked would be marrying a man worth a million dollars (which was of course untrue, as an average Joe from a regular city in the states was picked and was later gifted a million dollars at the end of the show). So the women were not only competing for his affection for his hefty bank balance as well. If that isn’t the perfect setting for true love, what is? Even a man like Donald Trump found himself seduced by reality TV and NBC produced the hit show "The Apprentice" where a group of young seemingly intelligent and ambitious hopefuls competed for a place on board the Trump Empire. The intensity of competitiveness, cat-fights and viciousness this show brought out truly hadn’t been seen before. Well done NBC, you managed to bring out the worst in ordinary people dangling a piece of the Trump pie in front of them.


Having watched a few episodes of these shows, I must confess, strangely enough the voyeuristic nature of these programmes is addictive. You find yourself rooting for a certain woman, passionately disliking another and waiting anxiously to see who he picks in the end, quickly realizing that you were harbouring far too much of an interest and forming opinions about these strangers lives. I must say  Mr. Personality had the best sense of humour, a setting where one woman spent a great deal of time with 15 eligible men, wearing masks, unable to reveal their physical appearance, armed only with their charm and personality to win the lady over. Just in case people felt the other shows were a tad bit too shallow and meaningless, here was a taste of sincerity where she fell in love with the man, not his face nor his money apparently!


If this wasn’t enough, reality TV turned to real celebrities and decided to give us a yet another taste of their lives, as if gossip magazines and E True Life stories weren’t enough. 24 hour cameras in the homes of Ozzy Osbourne and his eccentric family, an hour long show packed with violence, profanity, heated emotions and good old family drama, not to mention a dozen cats and dogs roaming around their gothic mansion. Countless memorable moments of emotional and mental breakdowns for Ozzy, the rock star turned barely comprehensible mumbling guy, who even walked funny (that’s what happens when you don’t say NO to drugs) as well as his children, the uncontrollable Kelly (brat child turned rock star) and the hard to figure out Jack (turned alcoholic) whose admission into rehab and recovery formed a show in itself (thanks to MTV).


 Not quite your average family, but nonetheless entertaining enough for the  MTV to mastermind yet another hit show with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson (two very famous pop-stars apparently?) parading their "newlywed" life at their very expensive mansion where young and talentless Jessica’s selling power was her clueless-ness, little miss rich girl turned housewife and even a pop star waddling like a fish out of water having to learn about washing dishes, doing laundry and cleaning up after herself. 


If these shows were not quite up your alley the powers that be decided to branch out and step beyond the, cameras in your home watching people make an ass of themselves in everyday lives, kind of programming. They decided instead to let you make an ass of yourself on stage in front of a panel of judges and hundreds of studio audience members and millions of viewers worldwide who controlled your fate. The birth of Fox’s American Idol (Pop idol in the UK) which is the most profitable reality TV show to date. This show saw the return of the delicious and controversially talented Paula Abdul, the now much loved and much hated Simon Cowell and music producer Randy Jackson, who sat in the hot seats, passing judgement on millions, then thousands and then a handful of hopefuls who exhibited their singing talents on stage in the race to become the next "idol" guaranteed a music contract, a single and video release if they won.


 Paula soon turned into the emotional, kind and supportive judge who took the side of the underdog, balancing out Simon’s matter of fact, blunt often hurtful straightforward comments about someone’s talent, or lack of it. Delusions of stardom were broken down, performers evolved, politics and emotions and hatred for Simon amongst contestants and audience members ran high, while millions of viewers were treated to some memorable, and some easy to forget performances until the first idol, Ruben Studdard, a big black man, was chosen. Lionel Ritchie, Brian McKnight and Craig David, move over, Ruben needs some space (and mind you is now a star in his own reality show, the Extreme Fitness make-over where millions can watch as he fights his battle against obesity).


After the "Idol" transcended the world to several countries and we had a whole new breed of "pop stars" overplayed and over-exposed on radio and TV, Simon’s unique no nonsense say-it-as-it-is (sometimes overplayed) earned him a place as one of the most recognizable people on the planet for his bitchiness, but he isn’t complaining. A somewhat watered down Simon can now be seen on a new type of reality show, "the X factor" sharing the judges bench with Sharon Osbourne (Ozzy’s wife) who takes on Simon like no one else can. This show seeks to find the next all round performer, a pop star with style, looks and a natural honed in talent with the special ingredient they call X factor.


If a surfeit of music competitions was reached, the producers decided it was time to venture yet, where no man had gone before. Everyone knows make-over shows a sure shot formula for success (Oprah has done them and the most famous interior designing shows in the US and the UK are home, garden and lifestyle make-over shows), so why not introduce a twist. This time, the chosen person will not only have his physical appearance, but his home and his life made-over by a team of professional, talented, eccentric and hard to ignore stylists who just happen to be five red-blooded American gay men!(now the UK has its own version but its not quite worth mentioning)


The ‘fab five’ equipped with an enviable sense of style, fashion, presentation, cuisines, personal grooming and all in all life philosophies find some poor soul in distress, a straight man in dire need of a life make-over. My favourite episodes were when they turned this average American cowboy of sorts clueless about personal styling and romance, and helped him turn his apartment into a romantic cosy home, prepare a 3 course delicious meal and a beautiful seating arrangement in his garden draped with organza sheets, cushions and candles in order to propose to his girlfriend. They turned this average schmo into a well dressed suave charmer who shortly after the show walked down the aisle with his lady love, much to the delight of the fab 5.


The second best one was when they helped an Chinese man in New York, banker turned debutant resturanter, setup his home, his appearance, his wardrobe, his PR and his rusty warehouse looking basement space in a  trendy New York neighbourhood into a comfortable, appealing, minimalist meets stylish, restaurant which impressed his girlfriend, his family and food critics. These guys have a knack for throwing in witty banter, tasteful gay humour, useful practical advice and crucial styling tips for men, essentially teaching men about moisturizers, hair gels, conditioners and cooking. The fab 5 are single-handedly making it trendy to be metrosexual, is what it is, the best kind of reality TV in my opinion.


But that’s not enough, in a furious race to outdo each other networks are airing reality TV shows with newer and crazier twists every few months and MTV is never too far behind to lead the way in its quirky unconventional takes on "real life". "Straight plan for the gay man" is their answer to the queer guys, where 5 sturdy self confessed macho men (as hetro as can be) take on the challenge of transforming one gay guy into a believable straight man, rethinking, reshaping his home, his fridge, his wardrobe, his mannerisms and his language, complete with a physical make-over and training in manly habits such as belching, groaning and scratching. MTV manages yet again to raise the bar and appeal to an audience on an altogether different plane.


But in the end, the most disturbing of all reality TV shows, by far, in my books is The Swan, a glance into the lives, the transformations and the beauty pageant of 15 average women who went under the knife to have corrective and plastic surgery turning them into visual and glamorous beauties who strut their stuff on a catwalk only to have one of them crowned for her efforts to discard her ugly duckling self. 


How low have we sunk? The question is who is to blame? Is it the creators, the script writers and the contestants looking for a slot in celebrity-dom or is it the eager audience, who can’t see to get enough of debauchery, politics, competition and sensibility jarring drama in the name of love, or of money, or of entertainment.


Asians are not too far behind, as India has jumped on the bandwagon with "Cine stars ki khoj" attracting millions of hopefuls from all parts of the country to become the next Kareena Kapoors and Shahrukh Khans. The melodrama, the tears, the disappointments, the backbiting and the quest for success provide a behind the scenes look at the lengths young Asians would go to for a break in Bollywood.


Is Pakistan wary of taking the plunge? Is Shaadi online as daring an attempt as we can make into the foray of reality TV? Matchmaking on national television is a step up for a country where even talk shows showcasing peoples personal and private lives are unheard of, so give us a few years. Possibly this new burst of Pakistani channels will come up with a Pakistani Pop idol, keeping in mind the talent that’s bursting through the seams onto Indus Music, or a Pakistani  Survivor, where average defence dwellers used to their Hondas and comfortable lifestyles will have to rough it out in the northern areas or the arid regions of Interior Sindh. (Maybe if we send our oh-so-trendy socialite, Gucci-flashing, Nabeela-brushed models down there we could have our very own re-enactment of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie’s "Simple Life").


Nonetheless, the world is changing, our expectations and our attitudes have been carefully reshaped and we are now hooked onto the so called "reality" we are sold in different flavours and packages. There will always be a new breed of reality TV to satisfy our dilettante appetites, this is a Pandora’s Box which is going to be impossible to clamp down on. If there is something in your life which is capable of being sensationalized and dramatized, if your willing to put on a performance of a lifetime for a lump sum, if your willing to make an ass out of yourself and be catapulted into stardom where you could rub shoulders with A-list celebrities, then suck it in, put away the ordinary, and bring out the drama and every bit of dirty laundry and eccentricity you can fish out in your life.


I can’t wait to see a reality TV show where we follow the highs and lows, ups and downs, not so glamorous moments behind the lives of our local pop stars, but for that our bands would have to stay together long enough for a series to be made about the rise and rise of their careers or will it be another O-town story (O-town who? The band that never quite made it but still managed to get a reality TV series). Imagine a Big Brother where EP and Noori are shacked up together to get through a number of challenges or how about a ZQ and Aaminah Haq version of "I’m a celebrity get me out of here" ( a cross between Survivor and Big Brother).


Or better yet take a bunch of ball-hopping, coffee drinking, feng shui and Dr Atkins addicts who can’t do away with their cigarettes nor effectively beat the hangover and put them on "Temptation island" with their love interests from this month and let them have it out. Pakistani entertainment would never be the same, but who are we kidding, with our unbalanced society structure and disparate lifestyles with a severe epidemic of confused identities, we have all the ingredients for several marketable reality shows but we don’t yet have the courage yet, to let in cameras and millions of viewers into our homes and our everyday lives. Its Pakistan, after all, it can’t be done right, right?

The writer is a psychologist and freelance journalist from Pakistan, currently in the process of writing her debut novel. Contact:

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