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