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Reality TV provides an education for self-help citizenship, author says


Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor

"Better Living Through Reality TV" cover
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In “Better Living Through Reality TV,” James Hay, a professor in the Institute of Communications Research at Illinois, explores the intersection of the reinvention of television with the reinvention of government that has taken place, in different forms, over the past two presidential administrations.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Many things have been said about reality TV, but “educational” has rarely been among them.

Yet whether we realize it or not, shows from “Survivor” to “The Apprentice” to the more-recent “Oprah’s Big Give” are imparting lessons for an age of scaled-down and reinvented government, says University of Illinois professor and author James Hay.

“Increasingly, we are expected to shoulder the responsibility for our own welfare,” according to Hay, and reality TV plays a role in emphasizing resources for self-help and self-empowerment. The reinvention of television has intersected with the reinvention of government that has taken place, in different forms, over the past two presidential administrations, he said.

Exploring that intersection and its implications is the task of “Better Living Through Reality TV,” a recent book co-written by Hay, a professor in Illinois’ Institute of Communications Research, and Laurie Ouellette, a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota.

“At a time when privatization, personal responsibility, and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies, reality TV shows us how to conduct and ‘empower’ ourselves as enterprising citizens,” the authors write in the introduction. It has become “the quintessential technology of advanced or ‘neo’ liberal citizenship.”

They note that there are reality TV programs directed at self-help or
self-empowerment in almost every aspect of life, whether it’s success at work, in finding a mate, in transforming our bodies, in managing our homes, in self-government, in seeking charity or other assistance.

“It is a sign of the times that, in the absence of public welfare programs, hundreds of thousands of people now apply directly to reality TV programs for housing, affordable healthcare, and other forms of assistance,” the authors write.

Yet even while shows such as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” are helping a few families out of thousands who apply, the shows also are instructing viewers about resources or means for helping themselves, the authors write. Where those resources come with a brand name, as they often do, it also provides part of the show’s revenue, as part of a new financial model for television programming.

The authors write that the charity shows in the reality TV genre rarely address larger societal or economic issues that may have played a part in a family’s circumstances. The shows also often imply that government programs are uncaring or ineffective, and often emphasize the speed and efficiency of the private sector in transforming a family’s life.

“You now have television as one of the ways in which something called welfare, or the public good or public service in this country, is being privatized,” Hay said. These shows essentially become an extension of government, providing not just entertainment, but a resource for caring for and protecting ourselves as citizens, but with commercial interests in mind, he said.