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Taking on Reality TV With Jennifer Pozner
email this pageprint this pageemail usAnne Elizabeth Moore - t r u t h o u t
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December 17, 2010

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
by Jennifer L. Pozner

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"Reality Bites Back," a new book on the phenomenon of unscripted television programming from feminist media critic Jennifer Pozner, distills into 386 pages an entire decade full of the cheapest, sleaziest TV shows in history. It's also the most popular genre of media the information age has yet produced. But with whom, readers might be asking themselves, is it popular?

Of course, the shows are popular with corporate advertisers, who cannot contain their drool at the thought of a thinly disguised representation of everyday life that they create and control, filling each dramatic scene with soda, hot tubs, clothes, personal hygiene products, entertainment systems, makeup, gym equipment, expensive sports cars and luxury, high thread-count sheets. All brand-name, all readily available, all thoroughly integrated into something we've agreed to call reality TV.

Yet, most of us understand this to be a slightly different thing from reality, which is filled with the common, unfilmed moments of regular, boring, unbranded lives.

The theory that underlies most media criticism around the genre, however - Pozner's book is one of many examples - postulates a degree of viewer confusion on this very matter. Overly simplified, the concern seems to run that unscripted programming establishes a direct messaging pipeline from big-brand advertisers to viewers, who respond to televised versions of themselves with unprecedented consumer support. In other words: that we react to unscripted programming as if it were, to some degree, wholly unmediated.

Now, this isn't true, but it is important. Regardless of whether or not viewers accept reality TV as reality IRL (as in "In Real Life"), the same decade in which the genre's taken over the boob tube has seen an unprecedented rise in for-profit educational environments, heavily branded infotainment, sponsorships, guerrilla marketing and ad-friendly social media. These have all worked to erode any critical capacity we may have been born with, and they've also supplanted any cultural institutions erected to provide same. We're left, not as empty vessels ready to be filled with whatever meaning the products sold on reality TV can provide, but without any facilities to gut check our gag reflex.

Enter "Reality Bites Back." Now, the book doesn't address the potential sociological impacts of unscripted programming. ("I'm not a sociologist," Pozner tells me. "I'm a media critic.") And it doesn't measure profit margins against integrated product appearances, nor the overarching impact of how this particularly regressive genre of entertainment may be impacting public policy. It touches on the deeply disturbing manner in which unscripted programming legally skirts years and years of advancements in the labor, civil and women's rights movements, and notes in occasional asides the disturbing manner in which participants willingly throw away these rights for a shot at televised humiliation and a decent wad of cash. But the purpose of Pozner's book is to provide a very harsh and very thorough content analysis of over a thousand hours of these shows.

In a style called, at turns, "insightful" and "bitter" (she's not; we've known each other for years and Pozner's "bitterness" is all affect, akin to calling Rush Limbaugh "blustering" as opposed to "savvy"), she snarks along to the shows you hate to love. Because it is difficult to find elsewhere in our culture, Pozner provides that nascent voice of criticality. The one that should watch previews of "America's Next Top Model" and think, eat something.

A feminist, book-length "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is not going to change our media landscape, not by a long shot. To do that will require the participation of far more individuals - women, mostly, who are disproportionately maligned on each and every one of these programs - throughout the country, all demanding change, all articulating the ridiculous misrepresentation of reality presented on reality TV.

And that's the role "Reality Bites Back" fills: it articulates the feminist objection to mainstream media's most frequently presented tropes.

The ever-articulate Pozner, executive director of Women in the Media and News, an advocacy and watchdog organization devoted to ensuring female participation in broadcast, print and online news organizations, sat down with me for an interview one Sunday afternoon.

Read complete interview on t r u t h o u t

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