Life as an Extreme Sport

Time, Desire, Reality Television

It feels almost obscene to wake up before 8am without an alarm. I suppose that’s what happens when you prime your body for waking up at a certain time; it begins to wake up naturally before that. Although it does feel obscene, physically I feel fine. It’s just the principle that’s at issue.

I watched American Idol last night, which is, despite everyone’s howls of protest, actually a form of research for me. I’m still keeping an eye on reality television (RTV), and revising my thoughts on why we watch it as, well, I watch it. RTV has changed a lot in a year; when I wrote the original paper on creating desire via RTV, there hadn’t yet been a split between what, for lack of better term, I’ll call the exploitive and encouraging (or positive).

The exploitive shows are the ones you watch and groan and wince: Nanny 911 is an exploitive show that a friend of mine watches. It’s the kind of show where you’re promised something if only you’ll humiliate yourself (and potentially friends and family) for it. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the folks filming the show don’t feel humiliated, but the people watching feel humiliated, shamed, embarrassed at their amusement, and outraged at the extremes they see. For better or worse, you could probably call these crass and uncultured shows blue collar reality television.

On the other side, then, would be the white collar shows. The ones that don’t humiliate their contestants. Of course, one of the first ones that comes to mind would be the Extreme Makeover brand of shows. American Idol, American Inventor, So You Think You Can Dance, The Apprentice – all shows where it’s not about humiliating yourself, it’s about proving yourself. You have to rise above the others, show that you’re more talented, more deserving, the best person for the job. There’s no eating as many hot dogs as you can in a minute on these types of shows. There are probably judges, coaches, or teams of people that come in and “do good”.

The question then becomes, if these two have really diverged into two subcategories of reality television, why do people watch one, the other, or both? I think that the reasons remain the same: they create desire. It’s just that the desire they create is different. On the crass, exploitive shows, the desire created is for one’s 15 minutes of fame, to get something for nothing more than being who you are. There’s no exertion, no having to rise above other contestants, and you don’t need to have natural talent or a devistating story to create sympathy and appeal. It’s the everyday Joe; no fancy lives, no college degrees, no flexible bodies or trained vocal cords. And the other side of the coin is everything that this side is not: you have to have talent, skills, something that moves you to the extraordinary, whether that be an outstanding ability to sing or a story that moves people to tears. These are the shows for people who want to compete, who want more than 15 minutes of fame. The carrot offered is not being on television, or any trick monetary prize. It is simple and clear: a recording contract, a year’s salary and apartment in downtown New York City, a remodeled house. These positive/non-exploitive shows require you to rise above the rest; the exploitive shows simply want you to be like everyone else.

White collar ambition, blue collar lives. The split exists in reality television, but the mechanism for desire that creates the show remains the same. Offer the carrot, show that the end result, be it 15 minutes on television or a year in New York City, and show people doing it, and more will line up for their chance. This 5th season of American Idol, they have had to move to stadiums to hold the number of people trying for their chance at a recording contract. People fly to the nearest big city in an effort to make it – Hollywood come to the masses. Obviously, the formula is working well for those running it.


  1. I can’t stand the blatant gender bias on Nanny 911. The dad works and has a career, while the mom is either a SAHM, forced to be one, or encouraged to give up her career. I’d think happier parents would make for happier children, but what do I know?

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