Let me guess: you know who the Kardashians are (who doesn’t?), Jersey Shore brings memories of the TV show instead of the Garden State’s coastline, and you could name at least two of the cities from The Real Housewives. Yet you probably won’t admit to many people that you watch or have watched any of those shows. Sounds about right?
Have you ever asked around about who watches these reality TV shows? Everytime I asked around at the VIDGO TV offices it seems as if nobody really watches them, yet their ratings always seem very healthy to me. People respond either with a not-me kind of look on their faces or a “I might have come across them.” So, who watches these shows?
Could it be that ratings are lying or that maybe a lot of people feel ashamed they actually watch those shows? It sounds like in those surveys in which 90 percent of drivers feel their driving skills are above average. How can that be? Is it that sometimes we want to think we are better than we really are? And why would people feel ashamed of watching those shows anyway? What is it about those shows that attracts us so much yet we don’t want to admit it?
Once upon a time humans started telling stories, which, according to many anthropologists, is actually what make us human since they allow us to cooperate and survive.
Tribes had coalitions that were maintained by close social relationships, frequent contact, and gossip. Social cooperation is key for survival and reproduction. When we lived in small tribes, members of the tribe used language to exchange information about other members -the birth of gossip and the Kardashians- in order to, you guessed it, survive.
Knowing about your tribe members provided humans with critical information on whom to trust or reproduce with. So, during those times, gossip became a survival tool in our arsenals. “The new linguistic skills that Mondern Sapiens acquired about seventy millenia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted mean that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperarion.”
According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “the problem of how to make all this [human] wisdom understandable, trasnmissible, persuasive, enforceable-in a word, how to make it stick- was faced and a solution found.
Storytelling was the solution- storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly… It should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.”
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explains the human need for story, stating that “fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother? If my hapless brother got no respect in the family, are there circumstances that might lead him to betray me? What’s the worst that could happen if I were seduced by a client while my wife and daughter were away for the weekend? What’s the worst that could happen if I had an affair to spice up my boring life as the wife of a country doctor? How can I avoid a suicidal confrontation with raiders who want my land today without looking like a coward and thereby ceding it to them tomorrow? The answers are to be found in any bookstore or any video store. The cliché that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.”
When it comes to creating a reality TV show, many people believe that if you just turn the cameras on at anytime, anywhere, an thrilling story will develop by itself, entertaining us for hours on end. The truth, however, is that if that were true, there would be no need to go to the movies or watch any TV. All we would have to do is head to the closest mall, pull a chair, and watch all day. If you really did that, after a few minutes, you would probably be so bored with “reality,” you’d pull your phone out of your pocket and look for “real” entertainment.
A story, according to Lisa Cron, author of Wired For Story, is “how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.” She claims that stories are about how we change, so the real change happens inside of us, “an internal journey.”
Thus, the creators of these “reality” shows produce what appears to be reality, “only sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining, because stories do what our cognitive unconscious does: filter out everything that would distract us from the situation at hand.”
Stories are basically reality minus the boring parts.
Curiosity- the incessant hunt for meaning could be a plausible answer.
Because nothing attracts our brains more than a … SURPRISE.
What’s next? Did she really say that? Are they really going to have a party in that palace? Is Rob Kardashian really getting married? Are they really going to split again? We look for the next surprise because we MUST know.
We crave it. It’s like when the water starts to boil and you know those bubbles are going to start splashing everywhere. It’s the build up that captivates us until… the next scene. We really want the situation to change. Some people hope for a better turn, but others silently hope for the situation to turn sour. How bad can it get? Let’s hope it gets just a bit worse. Noo! Really? OMG!
Besides the curiosity factor, many people also watch for aspirational reasons. Let’s say we are watching successful people enjoy life in a manner we have not been able to achieve in terms of financial freedom. Those scenes may cause in many viewers the desire to better themselves in order to provide a nice vacation for their family or a nice meal at a high-end restaurant. Even though in some cases viewers feel their lives migt be worth less just because they are comparing them with the luxury and excess of some TV personality, in other cases the scene might cause aspiration for a better life.
For some, a life well lived is being connected to other human beings, especially family and friends. We are social animals, after all, with an urge to share moments with other human beings. Since the beginning of time, we have lived in tribes, sharing food and stories around a bonfire, feeling part of the community.
As life has evolved in many societies, work has become the main element in the lives of both men and women, isolating many households from the rest of their families on a daily or even weekly basis. Even within households, since both members usually work so much, there is not much time to share even a single story. We might be exhausted and have to take care of the kids; others are just so tired, they get home and just want to disconnect by watching a little TV.
So, in some instances, in my opinion, these reality shows have provided a sort of a virtual family, to which we feel some attachment, even though we are not able to express our feelings to them. We can, however, sit down, just like we used to around the bonfire, and listen to their stories, their feelings and their struggles. Somehow, the TV has become the bonfire, and the reality show cast members have become part of our family.
So, next time you turn on the TV and come across the Kardashians or any other reality and instantly feel connected, glued to the screen for the following 20 or 30 minutes, don’t feel too guilty about it.
Just relax and remember that, after all, we are just human!
You might be interested in some of the other VIDGO TV posts:
Sapiens. A brief history of humankind
Lisa Cron. Wired for Story
E! Keeping Up With The Kardashians