What began as a documentary with the intent to capture the real lives of an American family has turned into a billion-dollar industry—but is spectating the lives of others making us better?
The foundation of reality television morphed from an anthropological experiment into a more in-depth—while still being completely shallow—version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Except in the new realm, it's not about being real; it's about being a brand.
When PBS aired An American Family in 1973, producers wanted to show audiences a documentary about the everyday life and struggles of an upper-middle-class family from Southern California. It was a show about a family who on the outside were perceived to have it all, while on the inside were falling apart.
Fast forward two decades when MTV took the Rear Window concept of peeping into the lives of others (with permission) to the Gen Xers and created The Real World. In its early years, the show allowed audiences to meet people of varying backgrounds and beliefs while they simultaneously got to know each other, under one pimped-out roof in the best neighborhood of whatever city the season filmed in.
While clearly not rooted in the reality of housing—as none of the cast would have actually been able to afford rent at those locations—these initial seasons did show cast members pursuing careers and early dreams in the works, whether fresh out of college or still finishing residency.
Unfortunately, this initial anthropologic model was abandoned after seven seasons and replaced with a show about cramming a bunch of 21-year-olds (most of whom had never even held a part-time job) under one, still very tricked-out roof, to see who would hook-up with whom. Gone were the days of watching people pursue any type of real path, and in were the days of watching people try to hold onto their 15 minutes simply for being on television.
This is where I think reality television went horribly wrong.
Don't get me wrong. Growing up, I could not get enough of The Real World, and as I went into adult life I basically swapped that out for The Real Housewives—a show I wouldn't even admit to watching until a couple years ago.
I am one of those millions of viewers, but I still hate how these shows coupled with social media have messed with how many are choosing to live their lives.
Once social media hit the scene, reality TV took on a new life that was less about becoming famous for accomplishing something and more about branding yourself to become famous.
In a time when advertisers will pay big bucks to any egocentric douchebag with bleached teeth and enough time to hashtag their way into a million followers, why bother learning an actual skill?
Therein lies my biggest beef with what reality television has become. The Kardashians, commonly referenced as one of the highest-rated reality series, is basically a show about a family who is well-known because of the role their deceased patriarch had in one of the biggest murder trials of the '90s, and a daughter known for dating high-profile guys. When Kardashians first aired, the only person with any actual accomplishments was the Olympic athlete they constantly undermined as the silly father figure.
In the bizarro world of Kardashian logic, being well-known and building a brand to climb up the ranks of fame simply for fame's sake trumps having any actual skill or talent.
Nowadays, people go on reality television with zero clue as to who they are or what they want out of life with the sole intent of reaching notoriety. It's the equivalent of trying to sit with the cool kids in the cafeteria at school, with one small problem, these are grown-ass adults who have not evolved past the superficial surface existence of a high-school adolescent.
Not only does the Kardashian television era glorify a superficial world lacking any sign of authentic life, it also takes the idea of faking it till you make it and adds steroids.
Though the days of being recognized for creating a piece of work to be proud of are not gone, the probability of having that work noticed with no realm of pretending is slim.
Most individuals in creative careers, me included, are told in order to get published or be noticed they must first create a brand with social media. Note, the industry advice is not to work on their craft, it is to pretend to work on their craft while tweeting their way to enough followers to be recognized by a publisher.
At first glance, this advice makes sense, after all publishers are more strapped for cash then they once were and are often on the lookout for up-and-coming talent with a built-in following. However, after miserably cranking away on social media for a couple years, these same individuals (OK, maybe this time it's just me) discover they are spending all their time on the show instead of focusing on actual creating. This results in having nothing to show for all those hours spent—except a rather embarrassing tweet incident with Ricky Gervais.
The number of people wasting countless hours trying to brand themselves on Big Brother or Instagram—instead of honing an actual skill set—far outweighs the available slots for those to become famous, but society is never in shortage of individuals with the potential to leave their unique stamp on the world.
Just imagine what those individuals could contribute to the world, if the same level of dedication was applied to really living their life, instead of just branding it.
Aspen Perry is a Salt Lake City-based aspiring children's book writer and self-proclaimed "philosophical genius." Send feedback to email@example.com