Is reality TV worsening America’s class problems

I’ve had a pet theory for years now that so-called “reality television” is making Americans meaner and more biased.

When I say “reality TV” I include all those talk shows going back to the early 1990s, and all those real-life court shows as well.

Is it just me, or does everyone on these shows seem to be under-educated, blue collar, petty, and more often than not, a minority?

And the hosts, of course, are almost always educated and white.

I don’t have any science or data to prove my point. So I’m not going to name names. But every time I stumble up on those shows, I can’t help but feel that the “entertainment” value of the shows is watching what idiots the guests are.

I started thinking about this again lately when I was writing last week about MTV’s new “reality” show mocking Greek-Americans. The show, called “Growing Up Greek,” per the preview and MTV’s own description, seems to be an attempt to smear Greeks in the same way the networks made a laughing-stock of New Jersey generally, and Italian-Americans specifically, with its earlier show “Jersey Shore.”

MTV's "Growing Up Greek."

MTV’s “Growing Up Greek.”

One thing you learn early on as a writer is that even though something is true, you don’t necessarily include it in your story. Why? Because it can skew the story, and send the reader along a line of thinking you never intended.

For example, some gay men are in fact effeminate. But if you create a TV comedy based on a ridiculously effeminate gay man, some in the gay community might understandably be upset by what would appear to be a network profiting off of, and reinforcing, a negative stereotype.

The same probably with MTV’s new show about Greeks who apparently inter-breed (a lot), and have an insatiable hankering for violence. (Interestingly, of all the insults I had to face growing up Greek in America, no one ever once suggested that we were into incest or particularly violent. Kudos to MTV’s originality.)

The cast of MTV's Italian-American reality show "Jersey Shore." (http://www.shutterstock.com/s/snooki/search.html?page=1&inline=122367244)

The cast of MTV’s Italian-American reality show “Jersey Shore.” (Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com)

Back to those reality talk and court shows. I’m not saying that race in America wouldn’t be a problem if the shows weren’t on the air. I am concerned, however, that the shows seem to be based on mocking a particular class of citizen: the working class. And, more often than not, it sure seems like a lot of people of color make it on as guests.

In the end, you could argue that these shows are simply reflecting the biases already in society. But I don’t buy it. I’ve worked long enough in communications, public relations and the media to know the impact television and video can have on the public mind. TV isn’t just a reflection of who we are. TV shapes who are.  And whether that’s for the better or worse is anyone’s guess. But I’m having a hard time believing that Amos & Andy TV does anything but harm.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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47 Responses to “Is reality TV worsening America’s class problems”

  1. johnbales says:

    Is it just me, or does everyone on these shows seem to be
    under-educated, blue collar, petty, and more often than not, a minority?

    YES, YES, YES, and YES. It seems like these shows keep pandering to a lower and lower denomination of viewer, a race to the bottom of the barrel. Keep the viewers from critically looking at the state of the economy, income inequality, racism, homophobia, etc, give them mindless TV shows that reinforce stereotypes, shows where you don’t have to think. And more channels are turning to the reality TV format. What happened to The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel (‘Ice Road Truckers’ and shows like that are history related?), Science Channel? American TV has become a cultural wasteland.

  2. therling says:

    Just like a bunch of 20-somethings in “Friends” could afford massive apartments (with a balcony!) in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation.

  3. Lordwhorfin says:

    Holy Moly, even that barista in the cereal commercial appears to live in a large detached sub-urban house! How’s that supposed to work?

  4. therling says:

    The programming that goes between the commercials (which is how
    television executives view it) is merely a by-product of bringing
    eyeballs to the ads. The shows stand in stark contrast to the imaginary land where the commercials take place. Notice how the happy people in the ads live almost exclusively in a place where everyone is upper middle class? It is an ideal place where all of us other poor slobs should aspire to be and can be, ostensibly, if we buy all that crap.

  5. Houndentenor says:

    As I said, I studied these as part of a class on American song (up to the “standards” era) and while I had heard of such material and assumed that it was in bad taste, I had no idea just how mean=spirited a great deal of it was. It’s certainly unperformable for modern audiences, but it is being studied in a systematic way. (A great deal of it is available on the Library of Congress website sheet music collection!) There were a number of scholarly articles on the development of all these styles which were interesting, informative and of course showed a richer and more complex history of race relations than what we are generally taught. (For example, segregation was more in effect for the middle and upper classes. Low income workers, especially the new immigrants and particularly the Irish worked along side and even socialized with African American people which explains a lot of the influences each musical tradition had on the other and why the earliest minstrel show performers were Irish Americans presenting what was advertised (it’s hard to tell just from the written descriptions) as authentic presentations of African American songs and dances.)

  6. lynchie says:

    The most offensive is Undercover Boss. The premise a CEO travels to various outlets to get a taste of what is actually going on. No seems to notice the film crew and he interacts with his employees. Usually he can’t perform the simplest of tasks. The end is he calls a few of the employees to head office and bestows some gift or promotion everyone cries, feels good and the CEO is thought to be a real good guy who cares about his employees.
    I call bullshit to all the shows but they exist because we have trained the population that they have the same chance to make it as the Kardashians, Bad Girls, Tori Spelling or whatever.

  7. Bcre8ve says:

    If you look at them like animals in the zoo, you don’t really have to worry about them as people. Ever.

  8. UncleBucky says:

    Also, I see no reason for deleting these things. Given my “age” I guess I still enjoy these now “uncultured” works, understanding their place in history and not winge-ing about how kids might be “exposed” to them in a way that would make them racist. I do love James Baskett’s work, regardless what the PC police might accuse me of.

  9. UncleBucky says:

    ARE, not “were”.

  10. judybrowni says:

    Umm, no.
    Loved Amos and Andy when I was a kid under 10 — happened upon an episode as an adult and it made my skin crawl.
    Neither Good Times or Sanford and Son had a complete cast of buffoons.

  11. judybrowni says:

    Except…I doubt many rich people were watching Jerry Springer with any regularity

    In my experience, the audience wasn’t college-educated, upper middle class.

    Also doubt they’re daily watchers of Judge Judy, et al.

  12. Drew2u says:

    Can intellectually enlightened programming be entertaining and cheap to produce as well as give a sense of social camaraderie or empathy?

    Can people like Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Alan Grayson, etc. Both appeal to and engage the common person’s interest and make their profession understandable and exciting?

    Would network television or basic cable be able to bring back a show like Big Thinkers?

  13. But porn for rich people, about poor people.

  14. Bcre8ve says:

    Poor people porn. Period.

  15. Houndentenor says:

    No, that’s just not true. Not “cultured”? They were performed in living rooms of well to do people along with arias by Bellini and parlor songs by composers like Stephen Foster (who also wrote minstrel songs…his story is more complicated and worth reading about if you’re interested). One of the more bizarre items in many library “historical collections” are bound copies of sheet music collections donated by the estates of various well-to-do people from 120 or so years ago. The first third are usually arias from operas and operettas, the middle third genteel songs from the period and the last third horrifically (granted, by our standard) racist songs that were immensely popular. This material is, of course, highly unpleasant so we like to erase it from history just as we usually delete the minstrel show number from the movie musical Holiday Inn. There were similar items in old cartoons still shown when I was a child that soon disappeared and I haven’t seen them since. I understand why we don’t show them now, but to pretend they didn’t exist or that they weren’t as bad as they are now or that they are just anachronisms is a gross distortion of reality.

  16. UncleBucky says:

    It goes without saying that minstrel shows and “coon songs” definitely are beyond what one considers cultured. They were rooted in 19th century norms. Now, I am not going to say that the Amos ‘n’ Andy Show is free from taint, but it was “of its time”, so we have to give both the creators (of the radio show) and the actors (of the TV show) a bit of slack for being “in their own time”. For our time? Naw. It’s simply no more an anachronism than “LIttle Black Sambo” and things like that.

    However, what we see now “in our own time” seems miles worse than Amos ‘n’ Andy is now or than what it was “in its own time”.

    Reality shows simply exhult in stereotyped characters being built from good ol’ human beings instead of seeing INTO a human being for his/her universal truths. I would rather watch any number of older TV shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Goldbergs, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Happy Days, and the rest, than any Reality Show post 2001.

  17. Indigo says:

    Setting aside the very interesting sociological analyses that have surface, I’d like to return to the bottom line question John set out there. “Is reality TV worsening America’s class problem?” The question is a challenge to conventional wisdom because our ideological construct denies the existence of a class structure. Remarkably, many people pretend or actually do believe there is no class structure in the United States. That’s a foolishness our media perpetrate at the same time that our media undermine it with programs dedicated to trivializing people lives with cruel ethnic and socio-economic generalizations.

    Meanwhile . . . oh-my-yes! . . . we’ve had an aristocracy of landed gentry all along. Those Founding Fathers and Mothers and the Puritans and the Pilgrim descendents along with the descendents of the Colonials and the veterans of the War Between the States, have prospered quietly, or gone dirt poor, kept a low profile for the most part, and continue to watch while recent immigrants and descendents of 20th century immigrants prosper or decline. The layering of socio-economic status along with the ethno-centric snobbery and even the hierarchy of family religions plays into a U.S. class structure more complex that the British manorial social structure our media instruct us to admire from afar.

    So no, reality TV is not worsening America’s class problems, it’s putting them on the surface of our

  18. Bob Munck says:

    It was considered acceptable up until the middle 1960s of thereabouts

    As I read this comment, I thought that you were just messing with me, albeit in a very elaborate way. But I looked up a couple of things and, to quote Lili Von Shtupp “It’s twue, it’s twue!” You aren’t just sucking on my arm.

  19. B00Z says:

    Whatever….the same stereotypes were seen in Good Times and Sandford and Son. The show cast blacks in a positive light with one character as an attorney and another as a store owner and was a favorite of the black audience, despite brain washing from the NAACP that the show was anything but acceptable to blacks. I still say its cancellation came on the back of The Civil Rights Bill.

  20. Jim Olson says:

    Darrick and I trying to prove to America that gay married couples are just as boring as the rest of America one Friday night at a time.

  21. Indigo says:

    ‘Potemkin Village’ shows. Good one! But caution is advised . . . I can easily see some media scrivener appropriating that for a Sunday night sit-com.

  22. Indigo says:

    True that. To this day, the Scottish on my mother’s side of the family call themselves Scotch. If FDR said it, it’s obviously correct.

  23. Indigo says:

    Much like the reaction that has turned Ferguson into a shouting match.

  24. BeccaM says:

    No, “Amos and Andy” went off the air due to sustained lobbying on the part of the NAACP and other African American groups, starting right from when the show went on the air in 1951. After running for three years, the show remained in syndicated reruns for many more than a decade thereafter until CBS was finally convinced to stop the reruns in 1966.

    Fifteen years is a bit long for a ‘knee jerk.’

  25. BeccaM says:

    It was considered acceptable up until the middle 1960s of thereabouts. In fact, my mother’s family often described themselves as ‘Scotch-Irish” (despite the fact there was very little of the former in the bloodlines).

    Most of the accounts I recall about the use of the term is the people of Scotland were called ‘Scots’, but ‘Scotch’ was often used as an adjective to refer to things peculiar to them or their culture. Basically if the newer adjective ‘Scottish’ is now applicable, in the past those especially of English backgrounds often used ‘Scotch’ instead.

    And as we all know, the English were famous for bowdlerizing peoples own names for themselves and their countries, and then insisting that everybody use the English version instead. Mumbai comes to mind as a rather blatant example…

  26. B00Z says:

    Reality shows seem to cover the gamut of Americans. White as well as black defendants/plaintiffs are on court shows voluntarily and are paid, thus taking a financial load off a guilty participant. Not all reality shows are about working class morons though I do get a kick out of shows such as Gold Rush and Moonshiners which BTW, features white participants who are often portrayed as morons. Some of the real estate shows depict successful sales agents with wealthy clients in search of high end homes.

    As for Amos and Andy, our black maid in the late 50’s dropped all housework at 4:00 PM to watch that show. As I remember it was a very popular show with black Americans at the time. I also recall, the show was removed from broadcast TV as a knee jerk reaction to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

  27. BeccaM says:

    ‘Reality’ TV is the opposite of reality. It is fiction masquerading as reality. The cameras are never forgotten by those present, even though we viewers are supposed to pretend the camera crew’s presence doesn’t affect how the people on the show behave. The inside scoop is all of the scenes portrayed on these shows are basically scripted, even if the dialog isn’t (and often it is). The people on these shows aren’t playing themselves; they’re amateur B- or C-grade actors pretending to be someone we’re supposed to think they’re exactly like in real-life.

    Those people on the ‘survival’ reality shows are never in any real danger, because there are safety crews. Even the guy I actually like and have learned some useful tips from, Les Stroud, even though he shoots all his own video, nevertheless doesn’t record his regular daily contacts with his safety crews. Sure, he puts himself in some very uncomfortable situations, but always in the back of his mind is the comforting knowledge that escape is one radio call away. Which he’s done on more than a few occasions when a bad situation became a little too ‘real.’

    The guys on the fishing boats aren’t actually desperate for that ‘last catch of the season’ — because as long as they bluster all macho-style for the cameras, they can count on the TV syndication checks to tide them over. The ‘homesteaders’ in Alaska mostly put on little vignette scenes to show what they would’ve done 20-odd years ago before the Discover channel showed up and gave ’em enough money to live comfortably (and usually elsewhere) whenever the cameras are turned off. (For instance, it is never EVER mentioned that the Kilcher homestead on Kachemak Bay is a mere 5 miles or so from the town of Homer, Alaska, population 5000 with dozens of stores, restaurants, and attractions, with Kenai, an even bigger town with a Walmart and Home Depot another hour or so up the coast on Hwy 1. Oh no — those folks are living on the frontier! “Have to kill that bear or go hungry…’cause the Safeway in Homer might be short on ground beef and frozen pizzas this week.” (/snark))*

    And these ‘ethnic’ reality shows are nothing but voyeuristic soap operas, where the actors are told to behave outrageously and stereotypically by the producers and show-runners — because NORMAL is repetitive and boring. They’re instructed to ham it up as much as possible. The shows are as real as a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game or any TV wrestling match.

    It’s just trash TV, ‘Potemkin Village’ shows. Trash sells, and the TV producers like ‘reality’ (sic) shows because they’re crazy-cheap to make. It’s the fast-food version of entertainment. You think maybe you’re consuming something genuine, but afterwards you just feel numb, bloated, and vaguely dirty.

    * = I know a fair amount about the survival-ish / homesteading shows because my wife is into them, and sometimes we watch together, because not everything is about the shows I’d prefer. ;-)

  28. nicho says:

    I don’t think Keilor mocks the community. They’re all likable people with certain foibles. I don’t know that anyone finds it offensive. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sure that there would have been some outcry on Minnesota Public Radio.

  29. nicho says:

    I agree wholeheartedly — as well as people who listen to “pundits” with their smart-mouth putdowns. And it’s not just schmucks like Limbaugh and O’Reilly. I remember watching the McLaughlin group. McLaughlin was just a rude asshole. And if I were in a discussion with Tweey Matthews, I’d just excuse myself and leave the room.

  30. Houndentenor says:

    Spike Lee waded into these waters in his film Bamboozled (2000). It’s not a completely successful film but the points made were well worth discussing but weren’t because (white) people were outraged and the screaming made serious discussion impossible.

  31. Bob Munck says:

    Keillor and many others who mock their own communities

    The problem with your thesis is that Keillor is not a member of that community, never was. He’s of English/Scottish descent, was born in a (distant) suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, is culturally and socially closer to the 1% than to Lake Wobegon.

    And I don’t think that Amos and Andy would be acceptable today even if done by Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy.

  32. Elizabeth K. Burton says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate a bit with regard to the court shows, the plaintiffs and defendants are volunteers. Isn’t just a bit possible they might be there because they think they might get a better decision than if they went to a regular court (which some if not many might not be able to afford)? That’s not approval on my part, by any means, but I think the situation, like most involving human beings, is probably more complicated.

  33. Naja pallida says:

    I don’t know if TV really dumbs down its audience, or simply plays to the lowest common denominator within its audience. Sort of a chicken and egg concept there. As long as the quality of the audience diminishes, so does the quality of the programming. When shows don’t get viewers, they vanish pretty quickly these days… so obviously, someone is watching the crap that most reasonable people roll their eyes at.

  34. Zorba says:

    Yes, exactly ^this^.
    I don’t know any Greeks like this, either.
    And I have Greek-American friends and relatives all over the country. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists, accountants, restaurant owners, business owners, film-makers, teachers, and just regular, working class people.
    Reality TV continues to contribute to the dumbing-down of America.

  35. Houndentenor says:

    I wouldn’t say its worse. I’ll admit to never having seen Amos and Andy but as part of a class a couple of years ago I saw bits of popular culture attached to minstrel shows and “coon songs” and I have to say I was shocked that it was far worse than I had imagined.

  36. Houndentenor says:

    The difference I think is that with Keillor and many others who mock their own communities, the people are in on the joke. I only learned about bits like the Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra (in which Keillor explains which instruments are or are not suitable for young people) and Lutheran Airlines (the meal on the plane is pot luck and they pass the plate to pay for de-icing the plane). The people who find that funniest are the people in their culture. We all belong to groups with odd habits and traditions and it’s healthy for us to be able to laugh at them. That is not at all like playing people for fools to be mocked by the culture at large. There is a lot of Amos and Andy style entertainment on tv these days and I’m surprised we don’t hear more complaints. After all CBS only canceled that show after much protest from African American groups and others over its content.

  37. Houndentenor says:

    And similarly I think people watch hour after hour of “reality” tv and think those are acceptable forms of behavior.

  38. Houndentenor says:

    I agree with you but I think it’s part of a larger problem of the glorification of trash. Trashy behavior and irresponsible lifestyles are glorified. Young people now think they can become famous without having actually done something exceptional first (like learning the play an instrument well or being good at sports or inventing something). No, such things require work and why bother when you can just behave in the worst manner possible (sometimes even doing things that aren’t legal) and becoming celebrated and emulated in the popular culture. I blame Paris Hilton but it was coming before then. Yes, some of these shows play up the worst ethnic stereotypes but not all of them do. These shows more than anything else promote bad behavior and then everyone wonders why that behavior becomes commonplace in the culture at large?

  39. nicho says:

    For example, some gay men are in fact effeminate. But if you create a TV comedy based on a ridiculously effeminate gay man, some in the gay community might understandably be upset by what would appear to be a network profiting off of, and reinforcing, a negative stereotype.

    There’s nothing particularly interesting about a gay guy who gets up in the morning, goes to the office, has a few meetings, does some work, hassles with the bank on the phone, picks up the dry cleaning on the way home, makes dinner, washes the clothes, has a glass of wine, and goes to bed.

    For heaven’s sake, a show about my life would last about three minutes on TV before everyone changed the channel to watch the “battling Greeks.”

    Everything on TV is a caricature. It’s demeaning to everyone it treats. I don’t watch any of this stuff. I remember watching Judge Judy when it first started and being totally turned off because she was such a demeaning, snippy bitch. Yet, I know people who watch it faithfully.

    Along the same lines, a friend from Europe spent Thanksgiving weekend with his American husband’s family — who watches Fox nonstop from morning to night. He was appalled that they just sat there watching the same channel hour after hour, day after day. He asked them why, and they told him, “Because it’s important to know these things and this is the only place we can get the truth about them.” Now, that is scary.

  40. Demosthenes says:

    I

  41. Bob Munck says:

    how thrifty he was because he was Scotch?

    Did FDR really say “Scotch?” That’s unacceptable today; the word is “Scots” or “Scottish.”

  42. Bob Munck says:

    I suppose you could make a case that Garrison Keillor is mocking and stereotyping the Norwegian minority. However, I think that makes it clear that there’s an acceptable level of such as well as an unacceptable level. The problem, of course, is in identifying which is which.

  43. 2karmanot says:

    “Yes, John, TV shapes us” You may find ‘Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord germane and very relevant to this discussion. Here: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/

  44. Bookbinder says:

    Every identifiable group has a Reputation of some kind. And by Rep, I mean qualities one associates with that group. I’ll give the example of the reputation of Scots. You’ll recall that great show about the Roosevelts. Remember FDR’s talk about his little dog and how thrifty he was because he was Scotch? That’s a group Rep. So I sometimes wonder if blacks have acquired a Rep for criminality and suffer from discrimination for that reason rather than always racism although I’m sure that still exists.

  45. UncleBucky says:

    Yes, John, TV shapes us. But I want to point out that there is a circular causation, not just one or the other linear causations (we inform TV OR TV shapes us). In the same cycle of causation, we are, through viewing ratings, social media, fashion, music and so on, informing the “liberal” media what we like (and what we don’t) and then the “liberal” media gives us what they think we want so that we will buy whatever they have also conditioned us to buy. So as we are “asking for more” they are “giving us more” which causes us to “ask for more” and then they “give us more”… Vicious circle…

    I know the media is in no way “liberal”. It’s only my snide dig at the idiot commentators who call it that. Even the most “liberal” media outlets (NPR, PBS, etc.) have begun to sound downright Foxish. I was born out of my time, it seems, or beyond my time. It sickens me how conservative the media really is, and with such little regard for the ideals anymore of the “real” founders. No, I’m not bitching about the “good old days”, but rather of the loss of the “better new day”…

  46. UncleBucky says:

    In a word, YES.

    Reality Shows have hurt US culture way more than Amos ‘n’ Andy ever could. In fact, where Amos ‘n’ Andy, beyond the stereotypes of the era, does good, there is NO GOOD in these reality shows, which only serve to heighten the stereotypes that we thought we were close to erasing.

    Thank you “liberal” media.

  47. Indigo says:

    It’s all trash talk and the only thing trash talking proves is that trash can talk.

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