Out of touch with reality

Sometimes the road is long and winding; sometimes it’s simply twisted.

By
March 22, 2012 13:03
Big Brother

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Many years ago, in what proved to be a mission demanding an incredible amount of professional dedication, I wrote an in-depth magazine article on game shows. At the time, in the mid-1990s, this was the major form of entertainment supplied by all three franchises on the country’s nascent commercial television channel.

The explanation of just why they took over the commercial stations is simple: “They’re cheap. They’re popular. And they’re easy to make,” Hebrew University professor Elihu Katz, a former lecturer of mine, told me at the time. “They also count as local productions, for which television has a quota.”

Quiz shows – where participants begged to appear for free and sponsors helped provide the prizes – were, indeed, financially attractive. As the term “ratings” began to make its Hebrew debut, they were also clearly popular. But easy?

After watching day after day of filming for various shows, I wouldn’t say that either making them or participating in them was easy. Even the live audience seemed half dead by the time the producer was through with them.

Any problems in the filming and the whole segment had to be repeated – including the reconstructed suspense.

The floormen in each show issued a similar list of “dos and don’ts”: “Laugh, clap, be active,” they would urge the already psychedup audience before warning: “Don’t yell out the answers, however obvious. And don’t look back,” sounding more like an angel talking to Lot than film technicians trying to avoid shots of the audience making faces at the cameras positioned behind them.

I also met some quiz-show contestants who had to spend six or seven extremely stressful hours at the studio.

At some stage in my research – when I was having decidedly unerotic dreams of telegenic presenters and flashing lights and my alarm clock sounded just like the buzzer participants hit if they thought they knew the answer – I discovered another dark secret. One day I saw a show in which the filming appeared to go smoothly with happy participants leaving the hall hugging each other every half hour.

Then the truth dawned. What I had just witnessed was only the first rounds of several different shows. The six-minute commercial break on your screen is really a six-hour black hole in which winners of Round 1 wait for a go at the really big prizes.

“It’s easier to film the first part of several shows in one go than to keep changing the lighting and stage set for both halves,” explained the director. But it was not easy to keep a live audience happy in a cramped studio for that long. Members of the audience left by the dozen and eventually only five sets of seriously excited participants remained in the studio with virtually no one to cheer them on.

“OK. I want technicians and everyone to clap when I say,” the floor manager ordered. Twenty hands made all the noise that was later used in the final program.

Nonetheless, I admit, I still like intelligent quiz shows – as long as the presenter takes care not to put the participants down and the producer hasn’t completely underestimated the intelligence of the viewers who are undoubtedly shouting out the obvious answers from the comfort of their own homes (because that’s the whole point).

La’uf el hamillion, for example, which was purchased by NBC as “Who’s still standing?”, can keep me entertained for close to an hour (with commercial breaks), with a cat on my lap, a cup of coffee in my hand and the illusion that I’m a winner.

Not so reality shows.

I object to the very term “reality” when most of these programs are showing anything but real life.

Compare La’uf el hamillion, for example, with Hamerotz lamillion – Israel’s version of The Amazing Race.

Here, the aim is to create the best ratings by setting up participants for the greatest humiliation. I cringed at the episodes I saw (also partly out of professional interest, before you ask). It was painful enough to watch Israelis running around foreign lands displaying their most stereotypical worst behavior, but I couldn’t understand why the missions just had to include such utterly treif concepts as getting a tattoo, eating non-kosher meat and handling pigs, preferably with a couple of attractive young women wearing less than is recommended in an age of ozone layer depletion.

Hisardut (Survivor) also defeats me. If you’re going to have a program with assignments, at least some good should come out of it: Why can’t the task be helping locals build a well, painting an orphanage, distributing food packages or helping preserve wild species in the rain forest instead of acting like wild animals in a Lord of the Flies-type environment.

WHAT BRINGS this to mind? The ongoing investigation into the possible misuse of psychiatric drugs during the filming of Israel’s wildly popular version of Big Brother, Ha’ah hagadol.

The start of the scandal, in that oh-so-Israeli way, rivaled for attention in a week of massive missile attacks.

It was no doubt helped in its race for headlines by the fact that the owners of Yediot Aharonot, which exposed the story, are major rivals of Keshet, the franchise that runs the program.

For me, the question was not what psychiatric drugs were used during the recording but what were the participants taking before they agreed to spend a month or so of their lives in the equivalent of a glass house with hot lights focused on them 24 hours a day.

Emotions obviously run high on reality shows – the contestants are carefully (mis)matched in order to produce friction and contrasts. There needs to be a certain chemistry – one that produces sparks.

What does the popularity of such programs say about the audience? A curious aspect of these shows is how just being on them turns someone into a celebrity participant.

The need for escapism is obvious – particularly during a missile crisis – and maybe there’s some deeper psychological need that has passed me by as I curl up with a good book or tune in to watch a documentary.

It’s not just the “adult” programs that worry me, either. This is a tiny country. Everybody knows everybody to an extent that makes me wonder why there’s even a need for Big Brother – in some neighborhoods you can learn more than you want about the neighbors’ lives from the sounds coming from their apartments, supplemented by gossip at the local grocery store.

Maybe I can get helpful tips from watching Supernanny dispensing advice on child-raising, but I wonder about the long-term affects on the kids who, in just a few years, will realize that their primary role was to provide entertainment, not educate parents.

Hayaffa vehahnun – Beauty and the Geek – is even more excruciating, exploiting male contestants chosen solely on the basis of their lack of social skills. It’s the modern equivalent of going to Bedlam.

Author Yizhar Smilansky (S. Yizhar) once penned an op-ed in Haaretz entitled “Hey, people, don’t go on television.”

“They’ll invite you to shut you up,” he wrote. “They’ll wipe you out before you’ve breathed a word; they’ll be fed up with you before you begin; and when you don’t say the line they expect from you, they’ll turn you into stupid dummies.”

Smilansky was writing in “the good old days” when talk shows were the dominant genre. All those hours of television viewing later, it seems we haven’t really come very far. What we are seeing are a lot of egos on a very public trip. Sometimes the road is long and winding; sometimes it’s simply twisted.

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