Networks hungry for viewers know the cheapest way to nab eyeballs is to produce a "reality show" with no stars, and supposedly-unscripted-but-in-reality-very-scripted and often uber-sleazy content. But in the rush for the prized adult 18-49 viewers, what about the millions of youngsters, the audience aged 11 to 17, also lured into the soup?
The Girl Scout Research Institute recently surveyed 1,000 girls in that age bracket and found these children aren't clueless. Everyone surveyed thought reality shows promote bad behavior: 86 percent felt the shows often set people against one another to increase the dramatic value; 73 percent thought reality shows depict fighting as a normal part of a romantic relationship; and 70 percent believed that reality TV leads people to believe it acceptable to mistreat each other.
So the youngsters see through the mud? Not exactly. Here's the rub: 75 percent said that competition shows (like "American Idol") and 50 percent of "real life" shows like MTV's "Jersey Shore" are "mainly real and unscripted." They may not find the antics admirable, but they see them as real, for them a mirror of what awaits them in the "real world" when they grow up.
What kind of "unscripted" sludge are teenagers watching on "Jersey Shore"? A new episode finds the cast taking their alcohol-drenched misbehavior to Italy (so much for "unscripted"). Deena desperately wants Pauly D to "do sex" with her, which causes Pauly to go trolling through nightclubs looking for a one-night-stand alternative. Does this sound like a show for eleven-year-olds? Of course not, presumably would argue the producers. Our show is aimed at an adult audience. But millions of middle-schoolers watch, too.
Pauly can't find an adequate partner, so back at the MTV-rented villa, Deena is drunk and telling Pauly "I'm a good f--! And I have no shame!" With all the tenderness you'd expect from "Jersey Shore," Pauly replies, ""Deena, I would knock the dust off your [blank] if we weren't friends."
The New York Daily News recap explained: "The next morning, Deena and Snooki decide to drown their sorrows - or at least the memory of their sorrows - with a day (and night!) of binge drinking, meatball grinding, and showing strangers how to do the 'Jersey turnpike' dance move. If you don't know it, look it up. Not at work."
You shouldn't look it up at work for that would be inappropriate. But your sixth-grader can watch it - on basic cable. Not only that, but with Halloween coming, your kids can buy the trick-or-treat costumes to imitate them. Last year, MTV proudly displayed a photo of what looked like second-graders dressed like their channel's promiscuous drunks. Their headline read, "These Jersey Shore Halloween Costumes Make Us Proud."
The "reality" shows featuring young people with no discernible talents whatsoever has also led to a distorted and unhealthy view of fame. The GSRI study asked girls 11 to 17 if they expect to be famous. One in four think so.
So how does one achieve this fame? Here's where the damage from the "reality show" is documented. Two very different world views emerged when the sample was divided into regular viewers of "reality" and non-viewers. On the statement: "You have to lie to get what you want," 37 percent of regular viewers of reality TV shows agreed versus 24 percent of non-viewers. On "Being mean earns you more respect than being nice," 37 percent of viewers agreed versus a fourth of non-viewers. On the notion, "You have to be mean to others to get what you want," 28 percent of "reality" viewers agreed, compared to 18 percent of non-viewers.
This is what networks like MTV are achieving. Regular viewers of reality TV accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives. The study found that 78 percent of regular viewers agreed that "gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls," compared with 54 percent of non-viewers. Sixty-eight percent agreed that "it's in girls' nature to be catty and competitive with one another," while only 50 percent of non-viewers thought so.
Obviously, not all "reality" shows promote societal disfunctionality (though I'm hard-pressed to find an exception on MTV). Some are positive and truly inspirational by design, like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition'" And before the cynics pipe in to say that "the market" demands the raunchy, let us underscore that shows like "Extreme Makeover" can be wildly successful commercial ventures as well. So it follows that the reverse of the present "reality show" poisoning is also possible. What would happen if these reality shows were to promote decency, and chivalry, and honesty, and respect, and manners, and modesty, and beauty, and innocence, and goodness, and fortitude?
It would all sell.