The reality TV code

Would a set of basic rules make the genre less crass?

The food-for-thought TV piece of the day is NPR’s Linda Holmes calling for a voluntary code of ethics for reality TV. The trigger for this call—and the increased concerns over what reality shows can do to their participants—is the suicide of Russell Armstrong. (The suspected suicide of Wade Belak is not the same thing, since he hadn’t even appeared on Battle of the Blades. Though it is another reminder that the people who sign up to appear on reality shows are sometimes emotionally fragile.) But the feeling that reality is out of control has been building for a while, because of hits like Jersey Shore that demonstrate that there’s really no upper limit on how crass these shows can get.

Now, Holmes is not calling for censorship; what she’s asking is that shows voluntarily agree to abide by certain standards. However, let’s remember that most entertainment Codes are adopted voluntarily. The Hays Code and the Comics Code were self-imposed to avoid government censorship. Even if Code non-compliance is theoretically an option, people who support that standard can have a way of applying pressure to the companies that don’t adhere to it—and with a seal of Code compliance, everyone knows exactly who the offenders are and where to apply the pressure. So while this proposal wouldn’t kill Jersey Shore, it might make Jersey Shore more of a pariah, more of an object of scorn—right now, with no absolute standards in place, you can’t prove it’s worse than other reality shows. The existence of a Code would be a bill of good health for some shows and a scarlet letter for others.

Like I said, that wouldn’t be censorship, though in the end it might lead to self-censorship. What is notable is that commenters on Holmes’s piece, so far, don’t have much to say against the potentially chilling effects of a Code. They may not all agree with what she said, but they agree that reality TV is unethical trash. Then again, comments about horror comic books in the early ’50s, if the internet existed then, might have looked the same way. Reality TV is one of those genres that inspires anger for a lot of reasons – its lack of ethics, yes, but also the fact that it’s gradually taking over many cable channels and taking time away from scripted television (particularly scripted reruns). You’re not going to find a lot of defenders of the genre, no matter how many people watch the individual shows.

Which means that certain ideas about ethics, morality and effect on behaviour are much more common and mainstream when it comes to reality shows. There have been calls for a voluntary code to be brought back for the content of movies, scripted television, music and (now that the Comics Code no longer exists) comic books. But you wouldn’t find most commenters on an NPR article agreeing with them. In the ’90s it was rap music that everyone – from liberals to conservatives, Fox News to NPR – seemed to be shocked about. Now it’s Reality TV.

Now, I understand that there’s a difference here: reality TV uses and exploits ordinary people for our amusement, while a scripted show or a song is a work created entirely by professionals who know what they’re getting into. And the actors on a show are not having their real lives broadcast to the world. On the other hand, the people who appear on reality shows often know what they’re getting into as well. As has been pointed out many times, many participants are exploiting the show (for fame, and the good things that come with it, which more than make up for the bad stuff in a lot of cases) as much as the show is exploiting them. And that’s not even getting into issues of exploitation (or at least over-work at long hours and low pay) for behind-the-scenes crews on some shows.

This isn’t me knocking Holmes’s list, which mostly consists of harmless and sensible standards. It’s rolling them all into a genuine code that I think might lead to some problems. Someday, if there’s a bigger scandal – and the scary thing is, there probably will be something worse than what happened to Russell Armstrong – there might be a public outcry that leads to the adoption of industry standards. But the result might be to water down the voyeuristic power that makes these shows so popular, and makes them more compelling (to many viewers) than the blander, more moral scripted fare.

Maybe that will be worth it. But I suspect the distance between regulating reality shows on cable TV (where most of these shows appear, and where government regulations mostly don’t apply) and regulating scripted cable shows is not that great. And that voluntary self-regulation of the one could lead to a similar moral code for the other.

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