Why you should care
Reality television is what you make it.
Even those who are addicted to reality television will admit that it possesses rather little in the way of redeeming social value. And for some of us, just watching 15 minutes of the tawdry banalities and staged ennui of those seeking their “15 minutes” is enough to send us scrambling over to PBS NewsHour for solace and repentance.
But reality television does not have to send its viewers into video confessionals with its participants. As a number of bold new producers and social entrepreneurs are demonstrating, reality TV can be a force for good in the world, a life-affirming means to change the very reality that the genre has been so adept at avoiding.
Reality television has been flirting self-consciously with charity in front of the cameras for years.
Reality television has been flirting self-consciously with charity in front of the cameras for years. Five years ago, an organization called Reality Cares attempted to pair reality show stars with charitable causes, sending the Girls of the Playboy Mansion, for example, to star-studded events for the benefit of causes like Operation Smile. It was a nice gesture, but it was only a gesture, and like so many Hollywood-ball, celebrity-gala-style gestures, it did not last much longer than the last glass of Champagne.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the premiere of Push Girls on the Sundance Channel, a show with the daring premise of following the lives of five women in wheelchairs who face actual, real-life obstacles. The show admirably pushes the boundaries of the genre as the diverse but uniformly attractive Los Angeles “girls” push through adversity. But the socially beneficial voyeurism still concentrates on such reality TV staples as flirting, sex and clubbing.
Of course, the real beauty of reality television lies not just in its attractive stars, but also in its versatility — you can make a reality show on just about any subject, including a family that makes duck calls, as the producers of the hit Duck Dynasty have shown. Which is why social entrepreneur Dale Partridge and his group Sevenly see reality TV as an ideal vehicle for expanding their charitable endeavors.
Sevenly is a California-based, for-profit enterprise that partners with a different charitable group every week, helping them raise money by selling specially themed clothing and other products on its website. Partridge would like to take Sevenly’s campaigns and the remarkable stories of its beneficiaries on air, and he has successfully raised enough money for a pilot show through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
Partridge’s vision is of a “reality show that changes the world by actually inviting the audience to participate in true stories of hope and inspiration.” And, Extreme Makeover–style, the show would follow Partridge and his team as they help change lives every week, from rescuing girls from sex trafficking to constructing homes in Brazil.
Sevenly hopes that its show will help usher in “the next generation of reality television.” But it remains to be seen whether viewers will actually find it compelling to watch the behind-the-scenes work of a social-good company.
Even if it fails, there are a number of other options for turning feel-good viewing into really good television.
For example, why not place 10 social entrepreneurs or Harvard Business School students into an Apprentice-style competition to see who can get the most safe drinking water into rural Chad or turn around a failing school?
Instead of playing matchmaker with bachelors and bachelorettes, why not play matchmaker with microfinance loans like Kiva.org in a show about donors meeting those whose lives or dreams they have helped?
Or why not turn 15 minutes of fame into 15 minutes of shame, and make celebrity derelicts like Lindsay Lohan (or even Wall Street malfeasants) perform their community service on live television?
If reality television can live up to its name, then it will not only help make for a better world, but for better television as well.
There was a time not so long ago — before The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire helped us realize what dramatic television really could be — when we were content to spend our evenings watching what we realize in retrospect was drivel.
Someday we may likewise look back on the first decade or so of reality shows as an era of shallow voyeurism in which a new genre was struggling to find its voice.
If reality television can one day live up to its name, it will help make not only for a better world, but for better television, as well.