How Savvy Are Viewers in Our Staged World?

Recalling the time when Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” movie came out, the question most often raised was how much of the film was documentary and how much was carefully orchestrated entertainment. At the MTV Movie Awards a couple weeks ago, Cohen organized an on-stage tussle with Eminem that the rapper later admitted was a planned shenanigan for laughs and shock value. And this news broke shortly after New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd admitted to pawning lifted paragraphs from a blog as her own. There’s no denying that technology, weather on-camera stunts, doctoring images with photoshop, or trolling the blogosphere for ‘original’ material, has delivered a tremendous blow to reality. But I wonder whether it has made it any easier for the audience to discern the real from the fake.

Any media scholar knows that technology makes any programming subject to manipulation, as evident from the network quiz show scandals of the 50s, but has our increased exposure to posed ‘reality’ made us a more savvy viewer or does the audience still maintain an untrained eye when it comes to dissecting the pseudo event? How much fakery exists in what we view and read today? Not everyone is the cynical me who assumes nearly everything is staged but, clearly, we must be making progress in recognizing the real (what little is left of it) — or are we?

Some people who witnessed Janet Jackson’s exposed breast during the 2004 Superbowl still stand by the “wardrobe malfunction” argument. There are teen and adult viewers of dating shows like “Next” who believe the cliches, zingers and poetic insults are the words of the over-tanned beach bunnies and dead heads who appear on the show. Much of the NBA community was shocked to learn of the recent referee scandal, where one New York ref attempted to rig games for a quick buck. I myself was even taken aback at a New York University event last year that featured Bethenny Frankel from “The Real Housewives of New York” as moderator.

Last fall media mogul Ted Turner spoke in a half-empty auditorium on green initiatives in the restaurant business. Sitting behind Jason (Bethany’s then boyfriend) at the far left of the auditorium (the venue has a large middle section and seating on the far right and left of the two main aisles), I was acerbically asked to move to the middle section. With Bravo camera crews ready to roll, the event couldn’t commence until organizers reconfigured audience members to make the auditorium appear full. I wonder: do they make the club guests bunch up on the dance floor to make their hangouts look trendy and chic too?

The irony of this reality television saturation lies in how little of the programming is actually, well, real. But does the average viewer understand this? Maybe they do, and it matters little in the grand scheme of entertainment. Well educated friends of mine who are shameless viewers of such shows recognize how little is real and that, sometimes in itself, is the major draw — the ‘it’s so bad, it’s good’ argument. It reminds me of how I feel about a few Def Leppard songs.

Pseudo events, reality TV, posed photographs, plagiarism and the like — none of that’s going away. While I see this staged ‘reality’ as low brow and low budget my real concern is how many viewers are understanding the theatrics of it all. Feeling out of touch with the average viewer, can anyone tell me whether we are watching with a grain of salt?

Jason Turcotte

Jason Turcotte is a former CCT Graduate Student.