prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Survivors and Victims of Reality TV’s Deception

Posted by prof e on April 15, 2017

Reality TV is constantly inventing new ways to shock its viewers. This past week on Survivor it was the outing of transgender contestant Zach Smith by gay competitor Jeff Varner. In a side story (in real life), Varner was subsequently fired from his job as a real estate agent by a boss who was quoted as saying that Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

The uproar on social media was immediate and unforgiving. Some of the harshest criticism was for Varner and his use of the word “deception” to describe Smith’s secret. Others were harshly critical of CBS for deciding to include the scene after months of deliberation.

But it turns out that CBS and Smith worked closely to prepare for the episode’s airing this past week.

According to the New York Times,

From the moment the episode was filmed nearly 10 months ago, the “Survivor” producers had been consulting with Mr. Smith about how best to handle airing the incident, which included a strategic media rollout and working with Glaad, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group, before the episode’s broadcast.

Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer called it “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on ‘Survivor.’ ”

But I’m left with a question that goes to the heart of reality TV as a programming genre. For the Survivor-type shows where contestants compete for a grand prize, deception, betrayal, and backstabbing are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Deception is how you play the game on reality TV…and, unfortunately, increasingly so in the world of politics and international relations. But I digress.

One viewer took to Twitter refusing to accept Varner’s apology saying, “Apologies only have meaning when they are expressing sincere regret for a mistake. What Varner did was no mistake. He intentionally humiliated Zeke and tried to justify it.” Exactly! That is how you play the game on Survivor. The drama created by conflict is why most people watch, and have been watching Survivor for more than 13 years. The business model for Survivor and CBS is based on people doing outrageous things in front of cameras and microphones. CBS will cash that check over and over again…or at least as long as the audience shows up asking for more.

But we’re still left with the question; why did this tactic by Varner elicit such a strong response from viewers? Just like the collective judgement directed at United Airlines, the moral outrage targeting Varner and CBS is indicative of society’s desire for justice. We know when something is over the line. But whose line is it, and where should it be drawn?

Some of the ugliest disagreements (on social media and elsewhere) are between people who want to draw the line in a different place than where others think it should be drawn.

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