Tom Shales On TV: Questionable rise of reality television and its inhabitants

Fifteen minutes: Robert De Niro goes far to find television fame in 1983's "The King of Comedy."
Fifteen minutes: Robert De Niro goes far to find television fame in 1983's "The King of Comedy." (Twentieth Century Fox)
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By Tom Shales
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This must never, ever, ever happen again. And by "this," we do not mean an alleged gate-crashing incident at the White House -- though that should never happen again, if it did happen, either. We're talking not about the act but about the reputed motive and reward for committing it -- which was, apparently, to get the perps' pusses on television, to make them stars.

If this was their wish, it's rather painfully obvious that they got it. Their pictures are paraded even when someone is denouncing them.

"These people should not be allowed on television!"

"Which people?"

"These people here, in these pictures we're putting on television!"

Now that TV cameras poke their noses into nearly every cranny and crevice of our great media environment -- and what with the Internet offering innumerable opportunities for people to be seen, studied, loathed and adored -- shouldn't the mystique of being on television have subsided?

You'd think so, but no. It's still a big deal whether we're talking about a giant national broadcast network or a smaller, niche cable outfit, and especially when we're talking about not a passing glance but appearances on a regular, perhaps weekly, schedule.

It seems as if people don't want to be just people any more. That's too humblingly anonymous. Now they want to be a show. They want to be a series. It's not enough to be John Doe; you've got to be the John Doe Show. For some, it appears that being on television imbues otherwise incidental lives with meaning; if you're watched while doing something -- whatever it is you might be doing -- the activity stays the same but you take on new dimensions. You're more here, there and everywhere.

It's a validation.

It's also, as Regis Philbin might say, out of control!

Now the question is whether the toothpaste can be put back in the tube, the genie shoved back in the bottle, or the genie's toothpaste -- well, whatever. Can it be done? After all, society can't allow people to misbehave left-and-right just to get themselves on TV. Do some people speed to get on a highway patrol show, or followed about by Channel Zero's Action-Copter? Do they rob convenience stores so they'll show up later in security-camera footage?

The sorry state of affairs may have become inevitable once reality TV went from trend to epidemic. The act of appearing on television morphed from privilege to right, or imagined right, with the prerequisites for admission lowered drastically. Now, no real talents or abilities are required, nor do you have to have attained fame in some other sphere; that would be so elitist!

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