• October 1, 2006
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Unreality Shows

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It's fitting that I am contributing a column about so-called reality TV in October, as Halloween looms. This is because at their hearts, reality programs are costume parties. I realized this while watching the latest one, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, on Sci Fi Channel, hosted by none other than Stan Lee himself. (Yes, I realize this is the second month I've plumbed the depths of my geekhood to present a funny-yet-pertinent column, but please bear with me--I'm writing this in August, and the pickin's are slim.) And by the way, that's the last time I'll use the R-word in relation to this kind of programming. To my mind there are only two types of reality shows: the evening news and Cops.
How can the others, with their manufactured premises and soap opera twists, count as reality? WWTBAS is good because it explicitly pokes fun at itself, while implicitly needling its predecessors. There is no reality in reality TV, unless you consider soulless repetition to save money on scriptwriters to be real. (Hmmm. Actually, it is.) WWTBAS doesn't pretend to be reality. It's not competing to get superpowers the way ordinary shlubs go on American Idol or The Apprentice to magically transform into pop stars or top executives. Regular people--single moms, real estate brokers, and interior designers--are wearing their undies outside their tights to win a comic book series and a TV movie based on their character. If I'd heard about it in time I might have auditioned myself. Imagine the hero I would have portrayed. Speed Bump, Inappropriate Man, The Journalistic Fraud...I could have been my very own team. To earn the top prize contestants have to possess (and display) a list of qualities that would give a Boy Scout the dry heaves. Stan has no patience for this dark, conflicted hero crap the kids seem to like. So far, the contestants have had to help a lost girl find her mommy; help an old lady back into her house by fighting off her attack dogs; walk a beam between two buildings, blindfolded, to rescue a woman in a fire; and buy lunch without giving away their secret identities. The highest failure rates came in the easiest tasks, interestingly enough. The same things happen on WWTBAS as on other shows in the genre--secret confessions, infighting, eliminations, a contestant returning as the show's villain, hidden cameras, and absurd skill tests are all here. But nobody expects these jokers to learn how to fly, and they provide a needed dose of puerile do-gooding. Sure, the heroes are living a dream. They just know it's a dream. Has anybody from Big Brother or The Amazing Race changed the world? My point is that R-shows, like the lottery, create negative behaviors and false expectations in consumers and in the people who deal with them. Backstabbing and self-absorbed rudeness are picked up because we all begin to think we're just one audition or scratch 'n' win ticket away from being above the rest of humanity. It makes for obnoxious customers and disinterested service agents. At least superheroes know that with great power and fame comes great responsibility. Excelsior! Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com
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