to TV's real people
Noting an absence of regular folk on reality shows
By Elizabeth White
Last night, as well as last Thursday, supermodels answered Regis Philbinís questions on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
On Sunday former child stars faced Anne Robinson on the "Weakest Link." Next Tuesday movie stars may well eat bugs on the celebrity edition of "Fear Factor."
The point of all this is not that reality TV is dead. It's just that thereís no room for real people on it anymore.
The presence of real people is what was supposed to make reality TV so different and so popular.
Think back three years ago to the show that started the whole unscripted trend, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire."
It asked this question of viewers: Who among you commoners, you who spend your ordinary evenings watching the glamorous people on the television setówho wants to be extraordinary?
Now the question might well be rephrased thusly: Which of you half-addled millionaires remembers enough from that high school you dropped out of to donate money to charity?
"Survivor" started off as a kind of social experiment to see if modern Americans could survive a Robert Louis Stevenson-style shipwreck.
It has turned into the most grueling casting call on earth.
The tribes have gotten younger and better looking, with fewer job skills in the process. Les Moonves is probably only slightly kidding when he mentions a celebrity edition of the show.
"Weakest Link" and "Fear Factor" jumped the celebrity bandwagon almost immediately, introducing famous people to their shows before a full season had even passed.
This isnít just a condition of new unscripted shows either.
Forget not that television's wildest police chase ever was a ratings hit by virtue of its unique star power, the celeb at the wheel being a football player named O.J.
Then we have our insta-stars, young no-names who become members of MTVís "Real World" and thereby instant celebrities in the MTV universe, popping up on the networkís "Spring Break" shows.
Not that Iím complaining from an aesthetic, economic or moral point of view.
In general, the celebrities are better looking, more natural on camera, and more articulate than the regular folks that appear on these shows.
The charity thing is worthwhile too, forgetting for a moment how much money the celeb has stashed in the bank.
Itís not about the ratings, either. The shows, particularly the celebrity versions, are still doing well enough that unscripted TV isnít going to disappear from primetime anytime soon.
Iím even willing to concede that celebrities might be real people, somewhere deep down inside.
Maybe it's that they're not really real. Their flaws are often flaws of character, and they tend to come out in the pages of People magazine, America's documenter of rehab check-ins and check-outs.
They are not, however, the flaws of humankind, the raw quirks of ordinary folk that made early reality TV so full of the unexpected. The early shows were fun precisely because we never knew what delightful, unkempt utterances would fly from their mouths--mouths so much like our own.
What all this signals is the end of the Great Unscripted TV Era of the Great Unwashed.
The days are over of regular people gracing magazine covers, commanding the attention of Las Vegas oddsmakers, and toppling NBCís "Friends."
Iím still deciding whether or not thatís a good thing. All I note is its passing.
November 20, 2001 © 2001 Media Life
-Elizabeth White is a staff writer for Media Life.