November 11, 2003 | Peter

The Politics of Reality TV

As Graham points out, politics is everywhere, even on reality TV. However, the politics of reality TV goes far beyond who’ll win Oz Idol or who gets kicked out of Big Brother.
The politics of reality TV is mostly about what the politics of TV and more broadly the mass media has always been about – mass distraction, mass consumption.
People have only so much time: most is taken up by work and sleep, but there are still about eight hours (thanks mainly to militant union action in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) to kill. When people worked physically hard, much of this was needed for rest. But given time and energy, people get up to all sorts of things. In particular, they organise themselves to influence their own lives in all sorts of ways, usually involving sociality, information exchange and arising out of this, solidarity. This is also what some people call social capital, a horrible term that indicates just how far economics dominates over other social concepts these days.
Social solidarity is a problem for the new capitaslim, which is far more totalitarian in intention than poor old communism could ever manage. It intends nothing less than the reconstuction of increasingly individuated lives with a view to maximising consumption. How this is being done is analysed very effectively in Naomi Klein’s book, ‘No Logo’.
Reality TV, with its vicarious ‘peak experiences’ and blanket coverage, is just the latest attempt to suck us into the increasingly electronically-mediated vortex of unreal life that is the media (and this includes video games, videos, etc). The point is to flog an ideology of unqualified individualism, materialism and consumption, and as the cigarette companies knew full well, if you can get them when they’re young, all the better.
So, the politics of reality TV is ultimately about undermining traditional democratic politics which relies on an informed electorate conscious of the need to act collectively, and to to subordinate individual needs at times to the overall social or environmental good to ensure long term needs. With no real political opposition, the way is then clear for a society organised along neo-liberal (economic rationalist) ideas.
The mass media has always been primarily used to pursue the interests of big capital, who own the mass media. Sometimes in doing this they also provide a little content. Reality TV is just the latest stage, although I’m hardpressed to see how it can get any more vacuous than this.

Posted by Peter at 11:44 am | Comments Off on The Politics of Reality TV |
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