Ace Up Our Sleeve
TELEVISION/RADIO; 'Reality' TV? Television Colonized Reality Long Ago
By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: January 21, 2001
AS ''Temptation Island,'' ''The Mole'' and, starting next Sunday, ''Survivor II'' stake out their turf in prime time, it may seem as if tawdry ''reality'' programming is taking over television. But researchers who study television and its effect on society say that the battle with reality was settled long ago, and in TV's favor.
''By the time a child goes to school, his world view is already cemented by TV,'' said George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of ''Telling All the Stories'' (Peter Lang Publishing), due early this year, in which he discusses how television entertainment and news programming distort how we see ourselves and the world. ''School now can only help him understand the source of his existing views.''
It's not a revolutionary idea, but it's one that Mr. Gerbner and others think should be reasserted at a time when corporate consolidation is concentrating power over programming in ever fewer hands.
Some features of television's reality are fairly obvious, such as the fact that it includes few people who are old or unattractive; the ''reality'' reflected by the buff and primarily young casts of the ''Survivor'' shows and ''Temptation Island'' is, in that respect, TV-determined. It also rarely includes poor people -- unless their poverty is the ''before'' chapter in a story of striking it rich.
Other features are not so obvious. On television, Mr. Gerbner pointed out, ''everyone runs around in cars at a suicidal speed'' with little concern for personal or environmental risks. Is it coincidence, he said, that Los Angeles is the center of both the television and car cultures? Or that the United States allocates a vast majority of its transportation funds to highways? ''When did you last see a hero get away in a street car?'' he asked.
Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, said that many viewers experience television as more real than their own lives. ''The less experienced you are in life, the more isolated you are, the more life becomes determined by TV,'' he said. For many, ''whenever there is a test of whether personal or media reality is true, they opt for the media reality. Increasingly, real life doesn't have the bona fides that television does.''
This reality substitution does not involve just the naive or the housebound. Mr. Fischoff cited a television actor who expressed ''disappointment in his own natural conversation, because he can't be as eloquent and witty as he is on screen.''
''He knows someone is writing things for his character, but he buys into the illusion that his character is really him,'' Mr. Fischoff said.
It's an illusion reinforced every time viewers mistake an actor for his character. It's why actors who play doctors on ''E.R.'' have testified before Congress with more effect than have real physicians, and why James McDaniel, who plays Lt. Arthur Fancy on ''N.Y.P.D. Blue,'' is asked to speak out on issues involving race and the police, even those with which he is unfamiliar. ''As an actor, you're in a position of power,'' Mr. McDaniel said. ''Your face is power.''
The result is a world where real life does not have the credentials provided by television. Or, as Mr. Fischoff said, ''We've made America into one big green room, where everybody is waiting to go on stage.''
Pierre Bourdieu, a professor of sociology at the College de France in Paris and the author of ''On Television'' (New Press, 1998), pointed out another aspect of the phenomenon: the best-known experts in politics and the sciences are no longer those who think the deepest, but those who can deliver the best sound bite.
Thus, he says, television-savvy guests with seemingly opposite points of view are paired off on talk shows like professional wrestlers. Lost is the autonomy of true experts, who may not always know how to condense their answers to 30 seconds or fewer.
Another balance has shifted, Mr. Bourdieu said: where television reporters once gained respectability by writing for newspapers, it is now print reporters who gain fame and clout by appearing on television. Thus, he said, television's needs increasingly define what is also covered in print, from O. J. Simpson to Monica Lewinsky.
Rene Balcer, an executive producer of the NBC series ''Law and Order,'' said that when the United States Department of Justice wanted to educate Russian lawmakers about the American criminal justice system as they wrote a new constitution in 1993, it had episodes of the show sent to them, including ones he had written. This despite the fact that Mr. Balcer, who never attended law school, creates legal theories and precedents for the show ''out of whole cloth.''
Not all students of television think that the situation is so bad. Robert Epstein, a professor at United States International University near San Diego and the editor of Psychology Today, said that television has less of a hold over the imagination than some more ancient storytellers -- the interpreters of pharaoh's dreams, who could determine whether Egypt went to war, or the makers of the radio broadcast of ''War of the Worlds'' that panicked thousands of Americans in 1939.
CARLTON CUSE, an executive producer of the CBS series '''Nash Bridges,'' also thinks viewers have little trouble sorting out fantasy from reality. ''Viewers want larger-than-life entertainment,'' he said. ''They look at TV to see an idealized views of things.''
No real-world detectives would drive a half-million-dollar yellow 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda -- one of only 14 ever made -- as do the detectives on ''Nash Bridges,'' played by Don Johnson and Cheech Marin. But, Mr. Cuse insisted, viewers tune in not to witness how police work in reality but rather to be entertained. The Hemi Cuda is part of the entertainment.
Mr. Balcer is more skeptical. He said that ''Law and Order'' receives not only innumerable letters from prisoners seeking legal help (which are thrown out), but calls from lawyers as well.
One call, from a Delaware prosecutor, inquired about a theory that had been used by the prosecution in a recent episode. Told that the idea was fictional, with no legal precedent, the prosecutor nevertheless said that he was going to use it.
In his darker moments, Mr. Balcer wonders: ''What kind of decisions are people making based on what they hear on 'Law and Order'? Sometimes I worry.''
Joseph Hanania's most recent article for Arts & Leisure was about political advertising on television.
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