Keeping it Real

Oct. 30-Nov.5, 2003
Keeping it Real
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
Le Moyne College hosts talk on cult of reality TV programs

The reality TV phenomenon currently sweeping America has taken television from a national pastime to a national obsession. And though it is branded as “real TV,” there is often much more going on behind the scenes than viewers are led to believe. Is reality TV really real? David Gleason gave some insight into this question during a presentation at Le Moyne College on Oct. 21 entitled “The Ethics of Reality TV.” Gleason, an internationally recognized expert on ethical, moral and religious issues in information and communication technologies, explored the cult of reality shows swamping the media landscape. Using a presentation and discussion format, he explored the practical issues of public media.

Reality TV is a cash cow, Gleason remarked. “These shows draw the most advertising revenue at the lowest possible costs. Audiences are fascinated with them. This makes them a huge draw for producers, viewers, as well as reality show participants,” said Gleason. Though reality shows have become a hit with the public in the past two years, the roots of reality TV can be traced back decades. America has a long history of fondness for what Gleason called “unscripted moments.” “We love outtakes,” Gleason said. “We enjoy seeing what happens when people make mistakes.” The U.S. is also obsessed with the rich and famous, Gleason added, citing several currently-airing “paparazzi shows” that give viewers a glimpse into the lives of stars. Reality shows are a natural extension of this interest, according to Gleason. Like outtake shows and paparazzi shows, reality TV allows the audience to become voyeurs.

Don’t be fooled; reality TV is not 100 percent real, warned Gleason. There are rules and a set of standards reality TV goes by; for instance, participants typically adhere to rules of conduct. Rather, it is the behavior of the individual –– how he or she will react in a given situation –– that is unscripted. “Reality TV shows let the camera role as the drama unfolds,” Gleason said. “Producers can create a set of rules, but they cannot control a participant’s reaction.” Surprisingly, worthwhile discussions can come out of such strangely fascinating television, explained Gleason. Viewers will often engage in discussions about the characters and their behaviors, making judgments on the “moral and ethical viewpoint” of a given situation. The ultimate impact of reality TV depends on this –– how the viewer interprets what’s happening. It is how a show is interpreted by each individual that will conclude if the ends of reality TV justify the means, said Gleason. “Effects depend on the audience,” he said. “Adults are likely to make judgments on the program according to if they like a specific character. A child is likely to see arguments and bad words.”

Some reality TV might be unsuitable for children, admitted Gleason. He went so far as to compare aspects of reality TV –– the partial nudity, sexual references and violence –– to pornography. In doing so, he made a bold statement about how reality TV consistently pushes the envelope in an effort to attract and keep viewers –– even those who are the most impressionable. “Most people agree that we should keep pornography away from children,” he said. “Similarly, we need to keep kids away from certain shows.” He mentioned the hit show “Big Brother” as having content particularly unsuitable for young children. Gleason tries to take reality TV shows with a grain of salt but said he has a bone to pick with one show, “Extreme Makeover.” The show takes participants who are unhappy with parts of their physical appearance and gives them a “total makeover.” Viewers get the impression that the makeover drastically changes participants’ lives for the better; they can now do things that they supposedly could “never do before.” Gleason told of one participant, a self-described “witch,” (not because she practiced the occult, but because of a big nose). The woman claimed that her children were beaten up and ostracized from the community purely because of her appearance. “I have a problem with this,” remarked Gleason. “It is disturbing that fixing a nose or making a chin smaller will make someone lead a more fulfilled life.” Gleason’s talk was sponsored by the English department, the communication program, Student Life, Le Moyne Student Planning Board and the philosophy and business departments at Le Moyne. Dr. Julie Grossman, associate professor of English, said that Le Moyne was honored to have Gleason at the college. “David has committed himself to bridging worlds we once thought were incompatible –– communications, technology, ethics,” said Grossman. “We are honored to have him share his work in these fields with us.”

Widely published, Gleason has previously participated in such discussions at Holy Cross College, New England School of Law, Boston University School of Management and numerous international conferences. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College in physics and philosophy and a master’s degree from Boston University in religion and culture in modern society.

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