The Second Half: What is reality? ‘Reality television’ is not all it’s cracked up to be

By Kathleen D. Tresemer

“There is no pain equal to that of being forced to think.”—Author Frank Yerby

September is here, a time to herald in TV’s new fall line-up. The success of reality programming over the last decade has been profound, measured against the benchmark series, Survivor.

Never a fan of reality on TV, I tried watching Survivor for the first two episodes and recall being horrified: “The whole point is not how well they can use their resources to survive—it is all about manipulation and screwing the others to win the prize!”

“Oh, yeah!” replied a colleague. “It’s fantastic! I can’t wait to see who wins!”

I was living another life back then, as a social worker, saving the world from just the kind of actions and attitudes these folks found entertaining. Manipulation, deceit, negativity, defensiveness, aggression: “What in the world is entertaining about that?!”

Little did I know that reality television programming was with us right from the beginning of TV. Beginning in the late 1940s, some of you will recall Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, a prime example of early reality television, along with Groucho Marks’ game show, You Bet Your Life. Then, there were the talent shows: Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts both featured competing amateurs and audience voting. The Miss America Pageant might be considered the queen of reality television, first broadcast in 1954 and still drawing viewers. Not unlike shows that followed, the winner was awarded a celebrity contract, and the whole thing was actually considered news!

I remember the Miss America Pageant being a huge event, and not just in our house, either. Every family I knew watched and discussed it for weeks, recalling the virtues of past winners and comparing them to the current Miss America. Dad popped a huge bowl of popcorn—in a big cast iron pan with a stick of real butter melted on top—and we all got to stay up late, to see which beautiful gal won and if she cried. They all cried.

The dark underbelly of society even made book on the Miss America Pageant, and the past winners’ statistics were published in the newspapers and discussed in the pre-pageant broadcast: color of hair and eyes, height, state of origin, and even the color of dress and style of bathing suit. Many a heated discussion was heard about the “one-piece vs. two-piece” bathing suit controversy, I’ll tell you!

Hubby suggested: “Queen for a Day was pretty big back then. My mom watched it religiously!”

“Oh, right,” I remembered the fur-trimmed velvet cape, crown, and red roses for the winner. “The term Queen for a Day is even part of our vernacular now.”

Sadly, the program was an early “sympathy-type” reality show, depending upon the tragic circumstances of a woman and how effectively she could cry and beg for help. Then, the audience voted—the winner was determined by the woman’s impact on the heartstrings of the voters, results shown to the home audience through the advanced technology of an “applause meter.”

“Did you know a woman from Rockford won Queen for a Day?” Hubby surprised me with this one, “She lived up the street from us and my mom was wildly excited about it.”

“Actually, I was really too young to know much about it,” I slipped in smugly. “After all, that show aired in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when I was just a child.”

Today, we have the big daddy of sympathy programming: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. As jaded as I am, I cry a few tears at the end of any episode I watch, but the episodes I have seen are minimal. I often tune in accidentally while looking for something else or while waiting for Desperate Housewives to come on—as I just said, I’m pretty jaded. Until they picked that family in the Freeport area, I thought all the supplies and labor were donated by the producers of the show—how was I supposed to know the community has to “cough it up” for the family they nominate? I haven’t seen Makeover since, not even in passing, but I’m pretty sure I won’t get choked up again after that revelation.

The thing that bugs me about reality TV is how the producers replaced all the scripted shows with that drivel during the writers’ strike. The idea here is that any moron can write the little content necessary for a reality show, rendering “real” writers unnecessary.

That just made me MAD! “I like real writing, clever writing, smart writing!” I moaned to anyone who’d listen. “Who wants to watch big-breasted women pull each other’s hair out in New Jersey or the degradation of a dozen women killing themselves to get a marriage proposal from a guy they don’t know? Talk about degrading to women…”

“They wouldn’t make ’em if nobody watched,” Hubby summed it up succinctly. “If they want true reality, I recommend the Cubs or the Bears.”

He’s got a point—and considering film editing and coaching participants, it seems what they actually want is Altered Reality TV.

On a positive note, I admit being pleased at the Emmy Awards choosing Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution as this year’s reality winner—a step toward intelligence and social conscience, my kind of programming! Acknowledging America’s obesity epidemic is true reality, and I can happily support helping people learn to change for the better.

“Reality is action,” I always say…now—if it’s reality you want—get out there and GET REAL!

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at

From the Sept. 22-28, 2010 issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!