The Age of Humilivision Why We Love Reality Television

Andy Warhol once said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.

The prophetic nature of this statement is now only too apparent in the meteoric rise in the number of reality TV programs on our screens. 


Opportunities for exposing nearly every aspect of your life – from your musical ability (or, more likely, inability) to your search for a new home, from your culinary skills to the gruesome details of your relationship – you name it, there’s a TV show that will be only too eager to feature it.

Less is More… Right?


The inverse of this dramatic increase in reality programs is, of course, an equally dramatic decrease in programs that are actually worth watching.  Reality fans will defend their taste by proclaiming their fascination with the lives of others, how “real life” and “real people” are so much more interesting than other types of entertainment (ignoring the fact that if they tore themselves away from the TV screen and ventured outside their front doors, they could encounter real life and real people any time they choose).


It is easy to see why program makers like reality TV – it’s cheap, and there’s no shortage of willing participants.  Probably the greatest appeal for viewers though is the chance to be spectators at the modern-day equivalent of the public execution.

The Appeal of the Court Jester


According to recent research, watching others make fools of themselves, or confess to an inability to cope with personal problems, is a good way to bolster the spectator’s feelings of superiority.  “People with a strong need for vengeance have the potential to enjoy watching people being humiliated,” the journal “Media Psychology” claims, which is why this type of program is sometimes dubbed “humilivision.”


Even for those who are either disinclined, or fail in their quest, to appear on reality TV, there are many other outlets for self-publicity, such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.  Whereas once people revealed their innermost thoughts and darkest secrets to the pages of a personal diary, they now broadcast them to as wide an audience as possible. 


Many even choose to alert their partners to the end of a relationship by changing their “relationship status” on Facebook, which has been singled out by American divorce lawyers as the leading cause of relationship problems.


There is now no shame in sharing your micro-experiences with others.  From blogs to “Big Brother,” self-revelation and self-humiliation have become commonplace.  Is this wrong or is it just the latest advance in the way that society functions?  People are now accustomed to being on screen.  We fix webcams to our computers, our cellphones come equipped with cameras, people no longer wave to CCTV cameras on the streets and in stores unless they’re actually stealing something.  Expectations of privacy have been eroded, with remarkably little public outcry.

The Truman Syndrome


There is now even a recognized psychological condition known as Truman Syndrome, named after the 1998 movie in which the hero discovers his entire life is being broadcast as a reality TV show.  Sufferers become delusional, convinced their every move is being filmed without their consent.  The proliferation of CCTV (Britain alone has an estimated 1.85 million cameras, one for every 34 people), plus technological advances such as Google Earth and Google Street View, can only add to their paranoia.


The chance to be seen on such a wide array of screens at any time has also had the malign effect of instilling a culture of “fame entitlement.”  Deliberately exposing yourself used to be something seedy old men did in bushes, but is now almost a rite of passage, as can be seen from the reply youngsters often make to the age-old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Famous!” they cry.

Every Dog His Day


It’s been 50 years since Noel Coward made the comment that television was for appearing on, not for looking at, an observation which now seems remarkably prescient.  However, if this craving for self-publicity and instant fame continues at its present breathtaking speed, soon there will be no audience left to watch.  We’ll all be on the screen, not sitting in front of it.


As for Truman Syndrome, it will no longer be a psychological condition.  It will have become reality.

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