A nation of voyageurs?

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Who remembers Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Rear Window’? It’s the one about Jimmy Stewart’s character Jeff a professional photographer, looking at life though a telephoto lens on his camera, believing he has witnessed a murder. True to many of Hitchcock’s films, it’s a classic that has stood the test of time. I watched it again recently and realized yet another lesson.

Just as Jeff observed the world through the rear window, have our television sets turned us into a nation of voyeurs? In the past, the closest the viewer got to voyeurism was through soap operas – but that’s a completely different genre, deserving its own distinct discussion.

Why has reality television become such a popular television pass-time? There are many versions: The ‘game show’ format began with the likes of ‘Big Brother’. And isn’t that an ominous title! The audience becomes part of the program, observing the behaviour of contestants in an ongoing, staged setting. The ‘Gene Simmons Family Jewels’ type series gives the viewer an opportunity to experience vicariously, the antics of the rich and famous. And the ‘Jon and Kate plus 8’ type of production opens its doors to the conduct of relatively ordinary people who struggle with extraordinary circumstances.

Trying to sort out the psychology behind the interest in wanting to watch these programs, is fascinating and at the same time a little scary. It seems to relate to the small town, living in a fish bowl attitude; everyone wants to know about and then tell about everyone else’s deepest, darkest secrets. It also brings to mind the old time ‘freak’ shows that were fairly prevalent at exhibitions years ago, having such drawing cards as the bearded lady, snake man and others. Since then, we like to think that our world view has become more sophisticated and politically correct. We show disdain when people gossip about the private lives of others. And we certainly agree that those with physical differences and challenges must be treated with kindness and respect.

So why then have television producers found it acceptable and rewarding to grab hold of this hook which draws in the viewer to the most personal aspects of people’s lives? More to the point, how come audiences have gleefully grasped onto it – hook, line and sinker.

I guess we choose to call reality television a form of entertainment. Sometimes it makes me think that we are like the grinning, toothless hags depicted in old films who sat knitting by the gallows, waiting for someone’s beheading. Other times I think it is nothing more than a performance. The participants are quite willing to act out their fifteen minutes of fame for fortune. So if Jon and Kate Gosselin are having serious difficulties in their marriage, they have been well compensated for their production; the series probably is doing better than ever, because the audience has been given a new hook to hold onto.

Yet, on a good day, I want to believe that humanity is better than that. I want to believe that none of us is so spellbound that we need to know every infinitesimal, unhappy detail about Michael Jackson’s life. Let the man rest in peace. Turn off the television and enjoy summer!

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