Living in TV land

With shows like "Beauty and the Geek" getting top ratings in Israel, reality TV may be more than just an opiate for the masses.

Beauty and Geek 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beauty and Geek 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It seemed like a typical afternoon in the Ma’aleh Adumim Mall just outside of Jerusalem, with the usual smattering of midday shoppers puttering around. But outside the frosted- up window of the ground-floor storefront that until recently housed the out-of-business Tower Records, a small gaggle of mostly teenage girls had gathered.
They had apparently seen the ads in the local newspapers or been told by their friends about what was about to take place inside the vacated store – auditions for the next season of the popular reality TV show Beauty and the Geek.
The ads – which, over a three-week period this winter, also announced auditions at 17 other Israel Malls around the country – called on men and women between the ages of 18 and 34 to mobilize that afternoon for a chance to be on the show that pairs female bombshells and introverted males in teams to face eliminations via competitions and challenges.
The requirements? Women must be “beautiful and self-confident” and have “personal chemistry with the capability to teach geniuses some things they don’t already know.” The guys need to be “nerds, intelligent, shy and ready to let go of themselves.”
The teenagers, mostly from the nearby Dekel Vilna’i junior high school, were giddy with anticipation.
“I love the show, I’m going to be on it,” said one of them, who looked like she might grow into someone with the attributes to carry out that ambition someday.
Nearby, nursing an Aroma lemonana through a straw and window shopping, was local woman Liron Chen, a 25-year-old graphic artist and physical trainer. Waiting for the doors to open for the audition, she clearly already had the physical traits needed to be a “beauty.”
“I was a model for Betty Rockaway for a while, but I’ve never been on TV,” Chen said. “I saw the ad for the auditions and thought, why not? The show is really funny and nice – I watch it all the time. Who knows? Maybe I can meet some people who aren’t like me, maybe I’ll get famous. It’s just for fun.”
A few minutes later, the Beauty and the Geek staff arrived, led by Zaza Cohen, an Israel Malls representative who was in charge of the operation for the day. After setting up a photography station and a table inside the store, Cohen called in Chen – the first arrival, and the only one who had shown up so far.
With the girls outside crowded around the entrance jostling for position, Chen filled out a questionnaire and was then thrown some more questions by Cohen, which she answered with poise.
When asked why she thought she would succeed on the show, Chen replied, “I think I can take a geek and show him something about aesthetics, clothing and appearance and in doing so make a connection with someone not in my world.”
When the Q&A was finished, the photographer stood Chen up against a backdrop and began snapping away. At the end, Cohen told her, as she would tell the dozen or so other applicants who showed up for the auditions that day, that the material would be passed on to the show’s producers and they’d be in touch with her.
Outside, the crowd was getting bigger as more youngsters, joined now by many adults – curious shoppers, fans of the show, scene junkies – milled around the entrance to the store. Even though there were no celebrities around, the allure of the cameras and being in eyeshot of someone who might, even remotely, have the chance to become a contestant on a reality show was enough to spark a mini-flash mob.
Around the world, reality shows have become, depending on whom you talk to, either the latest opiate for the masses or the long-awaited manifestation of Andy Warhol’s famous proclamation in the 1960s that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.
In Israel, you might want to cut that down to 10 minutes. We do everything more manically, and as with most social developments and trends, our reality-show fervor – on the part of both the viewers and the producers – is unmatched. From Big Brother and Survivor, to Mishpaha Horeget (Families in Overdraft) and Super Nanny, to Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born) and Dancing with the Stars, reality shows monopolize the prime-time commercial channels and grab the greatest ratings. The finale of Big Brother last month was watched by 45 percent of TV viewers, and revenue from SMS messages by viewers voting for their favorite finalists totaled NIS 7 million.
Clearly, what was once considered a trendy fad is now an anchor of our TV listings and plays an integral role in our popular culture. Is that good, bad, or doesn’t it matter? Send in your SMS votes here...
“I mean, the whole reason you watch a TV show is because it ends. If I want a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life.”

– Jerry Seinfeld
Anyone who considers themselves to be a cultured member of society likely scoffs at the idea of reality shows and the people who watch them, but in the privacy of our own homes we’re watching them in droves.
Despite Seinfeld’s prophetic take on the reality show phenomenon (he was actually referring to “to be continued” episodes of drama series), it turns out that we really do like long, boring stories with little point to them aside from the visceral thrill of viewing someone getting voted off the island, the house or the stage.
Nobody knows that as well as Prof. Amir Hetsroni, a mass communications researcher at the Ariel University Center of Samaria and the author of a new book entitled Reality Television – Merging the Global and the Local. Hetsroni’s book accepts the hypothesis that reality TV has conquered the world and examines to what extent the reality show genre is actually global and, at the same time, to what extent producers make changes and amendments to fit local tastes.
According to Hetsroni, a number of factors have converged to propel the reality genre to the forefront of our viewing habits.
“There’s definitely a sense of tiredness within all the dramatic genres – which have been on the air for ages to the extent they’ve made themselves obsolete,” he says. “It’s very difficult to make an innovation within the drama genre – whether it be relationships, or cops and lawyers shows. The public is just tired of it.”
The creation of an entertainment gap enabled the reality snake to slither in to fill the void, explains Hetsroni.
“People need to escape somewhere,” he notes. “It’s not like if you’re not watching soap operas you’re suddenly going to start studying astrophysics. You look for an alternative you’re familiar with, and reality shows provided that alternative.”
Another factor, according to Hetsroni, is the public’s weariness with the real reality – the news. Available 24/7 in a media frenzy that discovers, dissects and gobbles every development on the security and diplomatic front, the news used to be the national addiction. And despite outward appearances that the news still dominates our day (the anachronistic hourly Israel Radio news updates, with the beeps like a constant reminder of war around the corner), reality shows are becoming the new addiction.
“People are becoming rather tired with the news. There haven’t been any major developments like there were in the 1990s with Oslo and the territory swaps that followed it.
Now all those things, aside from our occasional wars, are quite dormant. There are the occasional scandals and probes of appointments or wrongdoings by elected officials, but it’s less riveting than what’s being shown on the reality shows,” says Hetsroni.
Perhaps the biggest innovation that reality shows have introduced – previously unheard of in TV land – is the personal connection.
“The likelihood of identifying with the onscreen protagonists is much higher in reality shows than on scripted programs because those people – for good or bad – are just like you and me,” says Hetsroni. “They didn’t take acting classes or study Shakespeare in theater companies for ages. You’re essentially talking about someone who yesterday might have been delivering pizza and today is sitting in the Big Brother house. The message to me – the viewer – is, ‘Hey, I could do that as well.’” Journalist and film producer Gal Uchovsky, until this season a judge on one of the most successful reality shows, Kochav Nolad, claims that it’s that sense of democracy and the leveling of the playing field that has given the biggest boost to the reality genre.
“There’s something very democratic about reality shows,” says Uchovsky. “You get to see people like yourselves, like your neighbors. It’s not controlled by the stars, the celebrities, the people who can get better seats than you in restaurants – it’s about your peers, and Israelis are into their peers.”
The tiny confines of Israel further contribute to the sense of togetherness reality shows transmit, Uchovsky adds.
“Unlike in America, where you don’t know the contestants, in Israel you at least know one person who’s a friend of a friend. In turn, there’s something very warm about these shows.”
Negating the notion that they’re nothing more than an inane form of escapism, Uchovsky says that on the contrary, reality schedule of our shows often deal with social issues at the forefront of our national agenda.
“Most of the fights they’re having on reality shows are the same big fights we’re fighting every day. All of the Israeli dilemmas come out all the time on reality shows – the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim, the Right versus the Left; it’s really no less sophisticated than any other form of TV – and sometimes it’s more so,” he says.
“Look at Big Brother – the biggest fight last season was about a contestant reading the Torah in the bathroom,” he continues. “Another contestant argued that his father didn’t go through the Holocaust to enable someone to sit on the toilet and read the Torah.”
Those uncomfortable situations are what pull viewers in and open the doors for reflection, says Oranit Klein Shagrir, who’s completing her PhD in TV and interactivity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and teaches at the Open University.
“Not only do you usually identify with one of the people you see on the screen, but the tables are naturally turned back on you to ask the rhetorical question, what would you do in that situation?” says Klein Shagrir.
“One of the questions people ask themselves who watch the shows is, ‘Would I participate?’ And it’s not only a rhetorical question. The programs themselves invite us to appear on the next season and give us an e-mail or phone number to contact,” she points out. “And that, in turn, leads [us] to ask, ‘If I did participate, how would I behave? Would I get along with everyone, would I survive Survivor, would I be the beauty or the geek?’ It turns into a very participatory experience even if you’re just sitting there watching. And that, apparently, is very attractive to viewers.”
Does the reality genre in Israel and how we relate to it differ drastically from other countries? According to Klein Shagrir, it’s akin to the Israeli mentality of taking everything to an extreme.
“I’m not sure if the Israeli audience is more obsessed with reality shows than other countries, but the producers sure seem to be,” she says. “For example, in the US, the season of Survivor consists of 17 hours. Here, it’s 40. Reality shows in Israel are like TV on steroids.”
She cites economics as playing a role in the reality overkill: If Channel 2 or Channel 10 is already sending a production team to a remote island to film a series, they might as well get a lot of footage in order to stage more episodes. Another economic factor is that the reality shows are hugely profitable, which means that when you flip through the TV listings, you’ll find reality shows on every single night.
“In the US on prime time, there are also a lot of reality shows, but there are also many other options. Here, there seems to be no moderation. It’s more like ‘Yalla, let’s take this concept and see how far we can go with it,’” says Klein Shagrir.
Within that extreme, however, the analysts see an interesting development on Israeli reality shows. Whereas American and British shows have no problem with a Simon Cowell skewering contestants to the verge of tears, the Israeli versions are – contrary to our stereotypically prickly Sabra selves – kinder and gentler in tone.
According to Uchovsky, who was generally very supportive in his feedback to Kochav Nolad contestants, the unexpected civility stems from a healthy dose of Jewish guilt.
“You can’t be offensive to people on these shows because of the Israeli psyche,” he explains. “When you watch a show and see a 23-year-old female contestant being insulted, an Israeli will immediately think, ‘What must her mother be thinking?’ They feel an immediate identification with the mother and indignantly ask, ‘How could somebody insult her like that on TV?’ That’s why on Israeli reality shows, it has to be toned down.”
That sensitivity also rears its head as the Israeli viewer puts a mirror up to the TV screen and likes or dislikes what the contestants reveal about the nation – a reflective exercise with which no other realityobsessed country likely grapples.
“There’s always a question Israelis have about how much do people on these shows represent them,” says Uchovsky. “The biggest debate over Big Brother was, are these people us, or are they the part of us we don’t like? Are they too simple or too uneducated? Israelis are very concerned about the way they look in front of the world and the way they look in front of themselves. The questions many people ask – and what keeps them watching – when they see Big Brother are, ‘Are these people worthy? Are they good examples of Israelis?’ I don’t think those questions are asked, for instance, in America.”
It’s no coincidence that the auditions for Beauty and the Geek in Ma’aleh Adumim took place in the store space that used to house Tower Records. Whereas pop culture once revolved around the shared aesthetic values of music and films, today everyone has their own mobile device for downloading these items, watching and listening with headphones in their own little universe. As a form of shared entertainment bought at antiquated stores like Tower Records, music and films are obsolete. Today, reality shows have become the subject of shared watercooler conversation.
“It’s part of the Israeli psyche, that tribal mentality. We like doing things together and then talking about it,” says Uchovsky.
Reality shows have become part of our internal jargon to the point that Defense Minister Ehud Barak refers to them when discussing the Hamas threat from the South (“This is no reality show”), and national debates take place over their virtues and faults. Our ability to poke holes in our own obsessions has manifested itself in some unorthodox ways.
The weekly satirical show Eretz Nehederet recently ran a controversial skit lampooning reality shows, in which it announced a new reality concept – Hamahaneh (The Camp) – based on a Nazi concentration camp. Would-be contestants had to choose if they wanted to compete as one of the guards or one of the inmates.
After receiving a flood of complaints accusing them of showing gross insensitivity to victims of the Holocaust, the show’s producers issued a statement saying that Eretz Nehederet and the skit were designed “to reflect the reality in which we live. The period is one where the desire to be a celebrity on TV at any price takes precedence over personal and national values. The role of a satirical show is to provoke public discussion, even if the subject is very disturbing.”
And just last month, reality shows became the focus of the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of Women when shows like Survivor, Big Brother and Beauty and the Geek were censured for statements lawmakers claimed were degrading and even criminally harmful to women. The session took place after Big Brother’s editor and narrator, Yoram Zak, was heard directing lewd comments at participant Dana Ron.
MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and fellow legislators from both coalition and opposition parties called on television’s regulatory bodies – the Second Authority and the Cable and Satellite Council – to take a more active role in screening out content deemed inappropriate for prime-time programming.
“This isn’t a technical failure, as was claimed when Zak’s comments were broadcast, but a conscious editorial decision to increase profits at the expense of the participants, who are assaulted like contestants in a gladiator match, waiting for someone to die,” said Zuaretz.
“The television franchises simply don’t have to broadcast messages on prime time that encourage violence in general and violence against women specifically,” she continued.
“Afterward, we wake up in the morning and see the problems of increased violence in our society, and wonder where it comes from.”
Television representatives at the meeting, however, defended their companies’ content choices.
Big Brother is a program that elevates and glorifies the female sex,” argued attorney Zohar Kadmon-Sela, who represents Keshet, the franchise-holder that broadcasts the show. “Powerful female figures, both intellectually and mentally, are presented on the program – women who take brave actions.”
The “scandalous” aspect of reality shows and the possibility that some downright non-PC utterances will be made during an episode are a big part of their appeal, says Hetsroni, who attended the Knesset hearing in March. He claims that the legislators were making mountains of out televised molehills.
“If you have a show with a woman partly naked and a man making racist jokes, it’s the gift of a lifetime for a Knesset committee which has to justify its existence,” he said.
The fact that the content of reality shows has become the subject of Knesset debate, however, has given strength to critics who say that there’s no redeeming value to them, that they’re sedatives for the masses, rotting our collective brains even beyond the damage sitcoms and late-night talk shows have done to them already.
When Channel 2’s nightly news reported on gasoline prices reaching a new high a couple of months ago, it provided some man-in-the-street footage from the gas tank.
One irate customer, furious over the increase and even angrier that nobody seemed to care, burst with indignation: “We’re a nation of idiots – instead of massing in the streets and protesting, everyone’s sitting at home watching Big Brother!” According to Hetsroni, it’s an unfair cause-effect analogy, spurred on by the cultural bias against reality shows.
“To my recollection, there was no revolution in the streets during the times of high inflation in the 1980s. And that was before reality shows,” he says. “Instead of watching reality shows, if people were going folk dancing, would that be better?” Hetsroni posits that “the criticism being raised there is the old Marxist take on capitalist culture – [desensitizing] your mind in order to prevent you from going to the streets to start revolution. I think that many Israelis will tell you straight-faced that we prefer to live peaceful lives in our 3.5-room apartments with our 2.5 kids watching our reality shows and going once a year to Club Inn at a resort.”
Klein Shagrir agrees that reality shows are not the root cause of society’s evils, and says some may even offer some redeeming qualities.
“For general knowledge, the shows that require answering trivia questions aren’t bad. They encourage and highlight the value of knowledge,” she says. “There are others that can provide you with useful tools, like Mishpaha Horeget with Alon Tal. The format was just sold to other countries, and it raises the issue and provides some answers on the difficulties of managing a family budget.
Even Super Nanny gives you some tools here and there and makes viewers think about what’s happening in their family. So it’s not all a wasteland.”
Redeeming qualities were in short supply, however, back at the mall in Ma’aleh Adumim, as the sporadic arrivals of would-be contestants was augmented by more stares and jostling from the crowd outside.
Female arrivals – usually wearing tight jeans, heels and copious amounts of makeup – far outnumbered the guys who showed up to audition. One 18-year-old man, looking far more like an ars (greaser) than a geek, was given a rudimentary once-over before being dismissed by the staff.
“But I really am a nerd,” he protested, to no avail.
At this particular audition, there appeared to be two common denominators among all the beauties and geeks who showed up. The first was that they didn’t have much to say.
They were the anti-intellectuals, reminiscent of the vacuous couple Woody Allen stops in the street in Annie Hall, who answer his question of how they find each other compatible, with the woman saying, “I’m very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and her mate adding, “I’m exactly the same way.”
The other binding ideal for those trying out was, as Eretz Nehederet’s producers pointed out, the overwhelming desire to be on TV – a dream made far more achievable thanks to the reality show phenomenon. As with Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, the end of being a celebrity has little in common with the means of actually doing something of worth or even notoriety to warrant that celebrity status.
A few weeks after the auditions, reports surfaced in the Hebrew media that the next season of Beauty and the Geek was being filmed under tight security in a villa near Caesarea. If Chen or one of the other hopefuls who tried out at the Adumim Mall made it onto the show, it will remain under wraps until Keshet begins advertising for the season ahead of its fall premiere. But the viewers who made the show’s finale Channel 10’s second most-watched program ever, with 585,000 views (surpassed only by another reality show – Survivor), can wait – they have a dozen other reality shows to fill the gap.
For Chen and the others, there will be more chances and auditions. According to Klein Shagrir, 14,000 people auditioned for the last season of Survivor, a figure she calls “mind-boggling.”
“The biggest reason for it is that people want to be on TV – period. And they’re willing to do a lot for those few minutes of fame,” she says. “But it’s a life experience. If once, people traveled to Nepal to grab memories and create their life experience, today, especially among young people, being on a TV reality show has become a new rite of passage.”
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.