Title This

better living through reality tv

The title Better Living Through Reality TV, by Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, drips of sarcasm in the ears of those like myself who inherently harbour suspicion of the media, especially TV and advertising.

I am not a fan of Reality TV programming, but I am interested in the enormous fan base and the genre as an example of expanded (though controlled) participatory viewing – the new model of media entertainment. I am also fascinated by the compulsion to participate in the game of voting, and the more complex game of contestant-hood, where the stakes are high and the 4th wall increasingly thin. The variety and discomfiture is enormous in Beauty and the Geek, Joe Millionaire, Tila Tequila, The Biggest Loser, and The Swan – to name just a fraction of Reality TV’s offerings, each upping the ante on the next.

Beyond voyeuristic impulses, viewers have long desired to participate, to be the star of TV drama – however tawdry and brief. Talk shows like Oprah and Phil Donahue in the 80s and 90s aired a nation’s laundry, never wanting for guests with dirty secrets and viewers with eager appetites. Artist Bjorn Melhus’s operatic installation, Primetime from 2001 dissects this drama brilliantly and with uneasy humour.

melhus

The book, which I have only just begun, delves head first into the political, educational (yes educational), economic, social, and ideological affects of the phenomenon that is Reality TV. TV as a privatized and homogenizing body now purports to speak to the public good. The TV shows and their agendas essentially become a replacement for the government’s interest in social programming, providing entertainment and a resource for self-improvement, albeit with the hefty price of commercial endorsements. In the introduction the authors write, “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 health care, and other forms of assistance”. Sign of the times? Sounds like high time to petition the government and vote in a candidate who truly stands for public good before the poor are washed away in the next natural disaster -slash- act of god. I’m not sure that a designer wardrobe, liposuction, jaw implants, and dental veneers (a modest example of The Swan contestants’ prizes) are going to help the public good.

House makeovers, the perfect mate, and extreme elective surgery are not beyond the reach of the disenfranchised, but only the precious few are awarded a chance at the prizes. American Idol was for a time America’s #1 TV show in the ratings – the prize there a recording contract awarded for the performance of unoriginal music. Anyone can do it!

Reality TV is presided over by moderators, consultants, and experts – the authors argue that they are patronizing yes but empowering too. These roles champion an active, self-possessed, and entrepreneurial citizenry – “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”. TV has become “the quintessential technology of advanced or “neo” liberal citizenship” (17). The authors weave In Foucault’s view of government and the self-governing model. TV takes governance into the home through a hard-hitting educational stance – but there is no place in this model for individuals who wish to reject femininity or masculinity as presented on screen, or who prefer a subcultural lifestyle (p 116).

Some shows speak to the political process – your vote counts. Polled by Pursuant Research, Inc, 35% of American Idol voters in 2006 believed their vote counted as much or more than their vote for the president (p 215), and an Idol moderator claimed that the 2006 winner received more votes than any president in history. Maybe the government should take notes – this is what the people want – voting at home, popular (generic) music, and big self-improvement prizes. The media pays attention – fans are the customers.

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Another TV genre that lets contestants dream big, financially if not cosmetically, is the game show. In related news, Mark Kostabi’s latest vanity project, Title This. For those unfamiliar with Mark Kostabi, he is a New York artist whose Kostabi World factory workers churn out endless dime-a-dozen paintings. He’s infamous for this factory approach to art making (not unlike artstar giants Jeff Koons or Damian Hirst), lack of originality, selling works on eBay, and his media persona.

kostabi

Said Kostabi, “My paintings are actually more interesting than the conceptual hijinks [which he is famous for], but you’d have to be a painter to understand that. It’s much easier to be entertained by anti-establishment intellectual slapstick than it is to understand what’s going on in a painting.” Unfashionable championing of painters as the pinnacle of fine artists aside, Kostabi’s Public Access variety TV show, Title This, is in my opinion, the most interesting thing he does.

To the tune of his own piano playing, he invites celebrity and artworld friends to title his paintings, rewarding them with $25 for successful titles. I have some ideas for the (untitled) image above.

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