Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reality And Reality TV

A poet in New York named Drew Gardner recently wrote a great piece about how reality television is giving us an insightful look at many of the troublesome economic trends our country is facing (hat tip to Alyssa at ThinkProgress).  The piece focuses on a new reality show called Killer Karaoke in which contestants attempt to perform karaoke while suffering degradation and/or brutality for cash prizes.  There are a variety of treatments you can suffer on this show, but this clip were a man attempts to sing the stupid 80's single "8675309" and serve the show's host (Steve-O of MTV's "Jackass" fame) a five course meal while suffering electric shocks so painful that they at one point cause him to collapse to the floor, is about as bad as they can get.  It's fairly amazing, if you made your employees at a business perform these stunts you would be liable for a huge civil lawsuit as well as possible criminal prosecution, but on TV it's just "entertainment."

The irony here of course, is that constants on reality shows are in many ways employees, they are just highly exploitable ones.  As Gardner points out:
Capitalist economic systems require one central point of internal logic for them to function; in order to constantly expand profits, workers must be paid less than the value their work creates, ideally as little as possible, as little as the labor market will bear.  In classical economic theory, new value only comes from one place, labor. In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship.

Reality TV contestants are an excellent object for this kind of relationship, because they are a disposable, easily replaced group of workers. Because their working conditions are not regulated by the Screen Actor's Guild, contestants can work unusually long hours, Some shows require a working day as long as 12-18 hours. Appearing on a show requires temporarily leaving, even risking, one's job. Union pay for an actor on a scripted situation comedy is $25,000 per episode. Reality TV contestants are often paid nothing at all for their work, though some receive a modest stipend. Most agree to work for food and shelter during the time they are being filmed, in hopes that the exposure might lead to some future opportunity, if not just for the sheer narcissistic reward of appearing on television.
Even the rewards a reality show contestant can look forward to are also in decline, much like the wages and wealth of the working and middle classes.  The most you can win on Killer Karaoke is $10,000 and indeed the most they've ever paid out is only $7,800.  This is a steep decline from the $50,000 you could win by being brutalized or humiliated on Fear Factor a few years ago.  Indeed the whole reward system increasingly looks like the "heads I win, tails you loose" nature of our economy.  The pre-Great Recession hit Who Wants to be a Millionaire? almost guaranteed you could go home from the "hot seat" with $1,000 as long as you could get through the easy first round of questions.  While a savvy player could always opt not to guess at a difficult question and instead walk away with $8,000 or $64,000.  Not so with Killer Karaoke, only one person wins, you could suffer cruel treatment once confined in the public realm to things like testimony in Federal civil rights probes and get nothing out of the deal at all.

These trends are not just confined to Karaoke.  Gardner shows how they are quite apparent in more "mainstream" examples of reality TV:
The new economy of reality television has helped American Idol become the most profitable show in the U.S. Its contestants represent legions of unpaid laborers. American Idol presents itself as an aspirational drama, but the perspectives of the show are very much those of the ruling elite. Success in this competition is about pleasing famous millionaires on their terms...The essence of American Idol is not so much the performances of the singers as it is the dramatization of the unbridgeable class divide between the ruling elite panel sitting behind the desks and the average citizen contestants standing on stage.

The early rounds of American Idol feature inappropriate contestants with little or no talent who are intentionally let through the cattle call weeding process. This represents an ugly and compelling entertainment spectacle that allows viewers to enjoy the drama of a few elite upper class celebrities verbally torturing some unfortunate neurotic caught in their web. These early scenes are job interviews designed to go horribly wrong. The hopeless contestants seem to deserve this fate because their grotesquely delusional overestimation of their talents and complete lack of understanding of what is expected of them by their prospective employers violates some primal sentiment of self-preservation in us. What they are really being punished for is not a lack of talent. They are being punished for being socially maladapted. Sadistic spectators at a ritual enforcement of conformity, we enjoy watching these sickly deer being culled from the herd.
It's in other shows as well, Dragon's Den was a British reality show (adapted here as Shark Tank) in which a panel of smug millionaires listen to (largely bad) business proposals and agree to finance or reject them.  As Charlie Brooker pointed out, the "insights" of these millionaire genesis often aren't very insightful at all, and instead just sound like some upper class twit trying to sound like that champion of economic success: Vito Corleone.

In many ways, Killer Karaoke, just takes these trends to the logical next step, by removing the millionaires and letting us all cheer on the "miracle of the free market" from standing somewhere on the post-modern factory floor.  The contestants are just the mistreated day laborers and Steve-O is just the lucky one who managed to make foreman of the work gang:
[Host] Steve-O is consistently lucid and endearing on the show, even when the occasional shadow of substance-induced derangement briefly passes over his face. It's clear he is not really involved in the design of the stunts, which are extreme by game-show standards but lightweight compared to some of the activities featured on Jackass, which often veered closer to self-harm-oriented performance art than reality TV. Steve-O is very much a traditional game show host in this role on Killer Karaoke, an updated Bud Collyer. He stays out of the action and keeps to the role of explaining the stunts and drawing comments out of the contestants. In a recent interview about the show, he said, "Breaking bones and sticking things up my ass was not getting any easier." It's clear that he has a strong grasp of the economy of the show, and perhaps about reality TV in general: "It's about the misfortune of others and exploiting people's willingness to sacrifice their dignity and well being just to be on TV for a brief moment." Steve-O's host character is an expert on ill-advised activities who has happily gotten himself promoted to a upper management position.
In fact, the whole bare bones nature of Karaoke is itself a window into the increasingly unsustainable middle class rat race and might offer us clues on our future:
Instead of notes from a panel of wealthy authority figures, the contestants, rather, get one line of instruction: "No matter what happens, do not stop singing." All that is expected of them is to remain committed to the performance of the song in absurdly unacceptable circumstances. This mirrors being middle class in a country where a middle-class lifestyle has increasingly been an unsustainable performance that is only possible to continue though reckless borrowing. Is it that much of stretch to imagine a similar electric shock system being utilized on warehouse workers when the GPS units they're forced to carry indicate they're not moving fast enough? Currently these warnings come in text messages. 
Is this where our society is going?  I don't know, and after all this is "only a TV show."  But at the same time it might be a lot closer to home that we like to think.  I for one find this possibility quite frightening.

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