The end of stories
I’ve been reading a book. Ok, I’ve been reading several books, as is my habit, and switching between them as I please. But for the moment, I’m mainly reading Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. I was lucky enough to see him speak in New York the other month, and he made some very interesting points regarding the history of mass media. As it happens, they coincided with an idea for a blog post I had a while ago, so I thought I might as well use the new info from Rushkoff’s book and get this post done already.
In the old old days, back in the 1980s, they still played music on MTV. You might not think it now, but it was actually a 24 hour channel showing nothing but music videos, with the odd interview thrown in here and there. It was the real Music Television channel.
We all know that’s not been the case for quite some time. Nowadays it’s mainly showing 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Jersey Shores. Reality shows. No scripting – well, not much, anyway – and heavy editing to capture the drama.
Obviously, reality shows are not an invention of MTV. We see them everywhere nowadays, and there are in fact so many of them that there are dozens of shows for each and every letter of the alphabet. We have America’s Next Top Model, Big Brother, Celebrity Circus, Dad Camp, Extreme Makeover, Farmer Wants a Wife, Gay, Straight or Taken?, Hell’s Kitchen, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Jackass, Kid Nation, Little Miss Perfect, My Shopping Addiction, Nanny 911, Osbournes, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, Real Housewives, So You Think You Can Dance, Temptation Island, Undercover Boss, Victoria Beckham: Coming to America, Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, X Factor, You’re Cut Off! Nothing on Z, though. Odd. Perhaps there’s an opening for some kind of Zebra Whisperer show? Or Zombie Dad or something?
There’s something more to it than just capturing moments of the real world though. Almost all of the shows listed above add another element to the mix: humiliation. Whether it’s about getting people to do things they loath or if it’s about exposing people in embarrassing situations, humiliation TV is all about capturing the viewer’s attention by using increasingly shocking material.
Ok, fine; so the current reality television programming is appealing to our most base emotions. That’s hardly news. But reading Rushkoff’s book, I’m beginning to understand the reason behind this trend. And it starts with the end of futurism.
Up till just recently, we were all looking into the future. We had dreams of colonising the planets, creating utopian societies with flying cars and friendly people dressed in white coveralls. But even on a more mundane level, we were leaning into the future. We invested in stocks to see them gain value over time. Even at the turn of the century, we were still trading on the future values of companies and services. An idea’s worth wasn’t what practical use it had today, but rather the potential use it could have in the future.
But that future didn’t really happen, something I’ve mentioned in my post The future isn’t what it used to be. And just after the millennium celebrations had died down, we seemed to suddenly stop and take a good look at what all those promising dot-com companies actually were worth today. And realised that is was… well, not much. The dot-com crash quickly followed, and we stopped leaning into the future and focused more on today.
The end of stories
So what’s this got to do with the fact that we’re currently inundated with reality TV shows? Well, Rushkoff argues – and rather convincingly, I might add – that the end of futurism is linked to a growing mistrust in narrative. Back in the days when the future looked promising and people, companies and governments all proposed future rewards for investments made today, we were also told stories. In almost every aspect of life, we had stories telling us what to believe in, what to think and what to feel. From news channel features to advertising and government propaganda, they all explained things in easy-to-follow stories. And they were all modelled on the old Aristotle’s dramatic structure, consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
But with the growing mistrust in the future, we tended to focus more on the moment, and so complex story arcs were deemed too slow and cumbersome to warrant our attention. This gave rise to the non-story shows like Beavis and Butt-head, where the point of the show was the experience, not the story.
When the major networks started to realise what was going on, they panicked and in a knee-jerk reaction started to produce (or should that be “produce”?) reality TV shows in order to stop people from channel hopping away from potentially boring and complex stories. And to be able to compete, they all made their shows a little bit more dramatic – or humiliating – to make sure that it would grab and keep our attention.
Luckily this is not the end. We won’t have to suffer increasingly more humiliating shows forever. As the management of the major networks’ understanding of non-narrative increases, the current – rather immature – reality shows will fade and get replaced by new types of show.
What kind of shows this will be, I don’t know. But I’m cautiously optimistic and hope they’ll be more interesting than watching some semi-celebrity being forced to eat maggots in a jungle somewhere. The future present really can’t come along fast enough.
P.S. I highly recommend you to read Rushoff’s book ‘Present Shock‘. It’s well written and easy to read and full of interesting ideas and observations.