Reality versus what we claim to want

The Situation and Professor Plumpers from MTV's Jersey Shore, the highest-rated television show among viewers aged 18-49. Those are possibly not their real names.

Depending on how many Facebook photos exist of you holding up a sideways peace sign,* you probably bring a varyingly complex level of irony to Jersey Shore. The MTV reality show is currently the top-rated television program among Americans 18-49, which makes it perhaps the most valuable commodity on television. Americans aged 18 to 49 buy stuff, as Situation and Professor’s decision to wear necklaces and bracelets to the beach indicates. According to the New York Times, 15 of the 20 top-rated shows for that age group this summer were unscripted—America’s Got Talent, Big Brother, The Bachelorette, So You Think you Can Dance, et cetera. That’s interesting, since in a TiVo poll reported in the same article, reality television was also the genre that the most respondents called “overdone.”

Before we get any further in this, let us agree that a poll of people who watch a lot of television is virtually useless. If respondents were interested in ideological coherence or matching their actions to their wills, they probably wouldn’t spend several hours a day lying motionless in front of the TV. The news that 75% of the top-rated shows on television are within the genre that the most viewers like least should not surprise us, any more than the news that A) American culture consistently promotes as desirable individuals who are very thin and B) two thirds of Americans are overweight. What people want and what people do correlate with depressing infrequency.

Let us also agree that, unlike the example just mentioned, the choice between reality and scripted television is not a moral one. If you’re worried that the popularity of reality shows threatens some more elegant genre of dramatic writing, you haven’t been watching enough TV. The most beloved genre in the TiVo poll was “suspense,” which includes such shows as Law & Order, CSI and NCIS, all of which are about cops who deliver monotone exposition to one another while performing grisly autopsies. Twin Peaks it ain’t.

So the much-reported trend that reality TV dominates the airwaves is depressing in the same way that it’s depressing to think that a particularly unscrupulous ant might rise to leadership of the ant colony under your sink. Television sucks. Because of that, television viewing provides a sort of perfectly amoral sphere for examining human motivation, since no matter what you’re watching, you’re still wasting your life and possibly damaging your brain. TV has little value as high culture, and because one derives virtually no practical advantage from viewing one show rather than another, what we watch on television comes very near to a pure—that is to say arbitrary—choice.

Yet the good people at TiVo, Nielson and the Times have made it clear that we are watching the most of the kind of TV we like least. It seems that one of three things is true:

1) We don’t watch what we like.

2) We don’t like what we watch.

3) We don’t like what we say we like.

From a phenomenological standpoint, (1) and (2) are nearly identical. The question of when we “like” a TV show is difficult to answer, since in (1) we decide before we actually watch the show, whereas in (2) we decide during, and after both cases we might easily hate everything because we feel bad about spending hours watching TV. Also—particularly among the hardcore, four-hours-a-day viewers that apparently make up the American average—what we watch is often a product of when we sit down in front of the television, and not the other way around. So it’s hard to say what “like” even means in this context.

Let us revise (3), then, to read “we don’t do what we say we like.” This summer, the most watched kind of television was also the most universally despised. The existential implications of this fact oscillate between weird and terrifying, and we lack the space* to adequately explore them here. I submit the following theory, however: if you can understand this aspect of American television viewing/survey responding habits in the summer of 2010, you will understand our present politics and possibly contemporary American culture as a whole.

We profess to be extremely concerned about the deficit, yet we also believe taxes should be lower. A large or at least vocal portion of the electorate insists that the government has wrongly trampled on the Bill of Rights, yet they want them to prevent the construction of a mosque. Our number-one concern is the economy, but we oppose another stimulus. Our culture is obsessed with youth, beauty and sex, but we’re all fat.

In other words, we either don’t do what we like, don’t like what we do, or don’t like what we say we like. To stretch Sartre’s terminology a little, we are in bad faith. Can a nation of voters/TV watchers continue to operate America in bad faith? Sure. We might be a little happier, though, if we didn’t.

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    This blog post from professional snarkmonger Matt Taibbi might contribute an amendment to your reasoning. Taibbi’s theory is that Americans hate themselves. They enjoying watching reality TV because seeing your distorted and exaggerated features in the funhouse mirror of Jersey Shore is a good way to accentuate your poor self-image.

    In more broad terms reality programming is only one element of current TV. The paradox is that even as specious reality shows dominate, cable dramas have yielded The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, all of which are superb entertainment and in the first two cases genuine cultural phenomena. There are also numerous less impressive but still acceptably written and reasonably popular shows after the fashion of 30 Rock or the Office (US). Whereas there is probably a meat-and-potatoes reality TV audience that watches nothing but Ice Road Truckers and Fox News, I think many of the same people who watch Jersey Shore are also tuning into Mad Men.

  2. Since I work in market research that focuses on the entertainment industry, I have to throw out an important flaw: the majority of “new” programming during the summer is reality TV. The cultural phenomena television programming is only on during the fall and winter. Why? Americans spend way less time in front of the television in the summer than any other time. I swear it’s true.

    The methodology of the study is flawed, thus your use of the study to demonstrate the broader point doesn’t work very well. If you ask people what they are watching when all that’s available is reality, they may not be super satisfied with it, but they also may watch anyway. Timing, especially with regard to entertainment research, is very important.

    I agree with your broader point… I’d check out Friedman’s, “We’re No.1(1)!” column. I think it compliments your thinking here.

  3. We may report that our favorite food is wild caught salmon, but we reach for the Cheetos. (Hey…they’re both orange!!)

    If you apply this line of observation to civil rights, freedom of (or from) religion, racial equality, opportunity for all, justice for all, and other values about which America is apparently having second thoughts,
    you’ll see a lot more dissonance than that found in our choice of summer viewing.

  4. American TV is in its heyday. When has there ever been a moment in history with so much quality new American programming being produced? Evan mentioned some of my favorites, plus Louie (disturbing, beautiful, sometimes a little boring, but you MUST check it out if you haven’t), It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia, In Treatment… and there’s lots of others that are just decent with occasional moments of brilliance (Better Off Ted, Nurse Jackie). Even derivative, predictable shows like How I Met Your Mother have the occasional episode that’s clever and worthwhile. Also wonderful is the acting on In Treatment, Mad Men, the above comedies….

    Not only are we in the best moment of television ever, it seems television is the ascendent form of dramatic writing at the moment–if I’m going to be as flip with an entire medium as you were with TV, I’d say cinematic writing is frequently bloated and theatre is choking on its own incessant self-reverence.

    I’ve never made it through more than five minutes of a reality show though. The horror.

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