Tonight, I paid $150 to attend an awards dinner that opened with an impassioned speech about how reality tv was basically a bunch of garbage that is displacing quality programming. Cheers! Applause! It’s the very antithesis of what America is all about! Cheers! Applause!
Well, guess what? A pretty big portion of it is exactly what America is all about. At least what the FCC says American broadcasting is required to be all about.
From the FCC’s own manual: “In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity.’ This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community of license.”
NBC’s The Biggest Loser has helped countless people lose weight and get fit. Til Debt Do Us Part offers practical advice and lessons on living within a budget. Reality TV does more than pit Meatloaf against Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice or teach us about the perils of spray tanning in Jersey, it more than infrequently teaches us how to remodel our homes, mend our relationships, try new things, broaden our world view and do incredibly nice things for our fellow man. There are entire channels full of reality TV dedicated to everything from cooking to travel to wildlife and more — two nights ago, I watched a show on Animal Planet that profiled different kinds of cats, clarifying which breeds were ideal for different types of households. These shows are, to my mind, far more in line with the public interest than most traditionally scripted dramas and sitcoms at present, which I enjoy as entertaining, escapist fare save for the occasional heartstring-tugging topical episode.
In the absence of the kind of quality made-for-tv-movies and specials that ruled the airwaves in the 80’s and early 90’s (which I genuinely miss), reality tv has picked up the ball with shows that address various personal and societal issues. I didn’t know anything about the “ice” epidemic until Dog The Bounty Hunter started talking about it, and Intervention brought the problem of inhalants to national attention in a memorable episode.
Sure, you can take cheap shots at certain docusoaps and reality-competition shows, but there’s plenty of useful, uplifting, educational stuff out there, too. Get back to me when you hear about a network sitcom giving as much back as American Idol or when someone uses something they learned on NCIS to help fix up their house. I’m not saying there’s not a lot of junk out there in reality TV, I’m just saying that the crap to quality ratio isn’t any worse than in any other genre; when it comes down to serving the public interest, I think reality is actually leading in the broader picture.