Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reality Shows

I was reading a news item from the Times, London published in one of our newspapers about a question in this year's SAT that puzzled students in America aspiring to enter the Ivy league institutions, Harvard and Yale. As SAT questions usually centre around grammar, algebra and problem solving, the students who prepared for them assiduously, as they do in this country, were quite unprepared for  writing an essay on  " Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality or are such forms of entertainment harmful ?"
There were certain aspects in the details given in this news which are quite revealing to me. I have watched some movies on American campus life and the students in them seemed more interested in fun and their prom than in their studies but this column made me realise that the students there and their parents too, are as serious about tests and exams as their counterparts in our country. They spend considerable sums of money on private tuition to prepare for the SAT exam as a good score in it is essential for getting entry into any University . One father who was quoted as saying that his son worked too hard to watch TV ( how could he, therefore, answer such a question on reality shows ? ) could be anyone from this country too.
The question itself is not easy to answer. And since I have not watched most of the reality shows and none consistently, I know I am not the right person to do so. Still I thought I will make some observation particularly in the light of a film I happened to watch.
Reality shows are coming up in different formats all over the world and newer ones are being added now and then. These shows include ordinary people, and not professional actors, in various settings. It may be a quiz contest like the 'Kon Banega Croropati' or a singing contest like the Indian Idol modelled after the American shows 'who wants to be Millionaire' and the 'American Idol' respectively. It may be a show like the 'Big Brother' and its Indian counterpart the 'Big Boss' in which a group of contestants are required to live in a house isolated from the outside world and interact with one another over a period of time under the watchful eyes of a camera all along. It could be a show in which the participants are required to overcome various challenges and perform some daring acts (with proper safeguards provided to prevent mishaps ). In one of the shows, Survivor , the participants are required to live in the wilderness and perform various acts to test their endurance and resourcefulness  with the camera recording their activities. The list  goes on.
The element of competition is there in each of these shows ( huge cash prizes are involved ) and that does provide varying degrees of thrill which attract all types of viewers but otherwise the audience for each type of show is obviously different.
A show like the 'Indian Idol'  surely attracts more of the musically inclined. Talking of this show a few episodes of which I did watch, I felt that it provided a platform for many a talented singer to show their talents not only in front of the judges or the studio audience but in front of a much larger national audience. This is an opportunity the contestants would not have got otherwise - an opportunity which may have helped quite a few of them, not only the winner of the show - in launching a career in music or show business instead of remaining a local sensation amongst friends,colleagues and relatives.I have however some reservations about the children's show like 'Sa Re Ga Ma Pa' (song) and ''Dance Bangla Dance' (dance ). I am impressed by the performances  of the children some of whom are amazingly gifted. These shows are so popular that I think a second or third series is now going on.The parents must be very keen to see their children getting into the shows and performing. I feel though that these children are too young to be brought into such public competition. Some may find it difficult to cope with failure emotionally and as for those who are being lauded and praised sky high for genuinely good performances, the celebrity status at such a young and tender age may be counterproductive.
The dangerous potential of a reality show was however revealed to me when I watched the movie 'Condemned' in one of the movie channels on my TV. The film tells the story of a multi-millionaire TV producer who gets ten convicts sentenced to death for various crimes of extremely violent nature released from prison and releases them in an island in a secret location on condition that they will have to kill one another in a 30- hour period and the sole survivor will get his freedom and a huge prize money. None of them can attempt to flee as an anklet is fitted to each of their ankles with a powerful explosive timed to detonate after thirty hours or before if anyone tries to remove them. The convicts have no option but to do his bidding. The man has arranged for a multitude of TV cameras fitted at strategic points all over the island to be able to record the movements of each and every one of these convicts and the violent actions to follow. He has a control room with computer and electronic experts to record all their actions and upload them in real time to the internet to their website for people to watch in streaming videos after paying a fee for registering to the site. The payments are directly routed to his bank account.
He also arranges ads to inform prospective viewers about the reality show and in fact gives an interview brazenly to a TV channel with the same object confident that he will have finished his project and made his money by the time the authorities discover the island's location.
The film thereafter rolls on with gruesome killings being enacted on the island as each one of the convicts tries to track and kill another, all being fed in real time to all the computers which log on to their site in the internet.Their console records more than a million hits in no time and the man makes some millions in that time. 
I do not want to go into further details. It is a film depicting violence, though it ends with the indirect message that crime does not pay ( which most of such films does ), it feeds on people's voyeuristic tendencies and their desire to experience vicarious thrills. These are the same traits that the protagonist in the film banks on in his project to make money. Though it is fiction, can one rule out the possibility of someone getting such a grotesque idea and exploit this human weakness- is it the male psyche only ? - to make money ? After all, pornographic sites which panders to such base instincts dominated the internet in its early stages and possibly does so even now.
The internet is a powerful tool. It is a tool that can be used as a source of information and knowledge, for education and entertainment, for communication and networking, for running the economy and business and myriad other useful purposes, but it can also spread garbage and filth or stir up dark embers lying dormant in many of us as shown in the above example. One can always argue it is the viewers' choice, it is up to him to watch or not, but that argument is more like the drug traffickers'  who would like to pass the buck on to the addicts who sustain a demand. But the young addict who tries a drug for fun or a kick mostly under peer pressure or sometimes being duped by someone else, gets unwittingly hooked and addicted. It is only possible because the supply is there and readily available. Even Adam could not resist the temptation of the fruit firstly because it was there and  secondly, it was too tempting and forbidden.
Contents shown on the TV can be and are sometimes controlled on the basis of a social consensus. It is not that easy to monitor and control the contents in a vast network like the internet, but there should be continuing efforts to do so.

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