Monday, September 5, 2011

Reality TV and ethics: mutually exclusive?

Like a lot of people, I was interested to see how Bravo would handle the suicide of Russell Armstrong on the season premiere of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  I'm surprised but I'm not at the result: three and a half minutes of the cast sitting around, minus the (estranged) wife of the dead man, talking about how awful it was, without even so much as a photo or a "In Memory Of" title card to remind the audience of who we're talking about.  And then they just eliminate his storyline and any of his appearances from the premiere episode, like he never existed in the first place.

I was also surprised, but not surprised, that the season premiere wasn't pushed back a week or two.  From a pure ratings standpoint, it is probably going to be a home run for Bravo.  But from a moral and ethical standpoint, I'm wondering how well the programming department and production company responsible for the show are sleeping tonight.  It seemed like a slapped-together way to deal with something that other networks have dealt with in a much more extraordinary and respectful fashion.

VH1 pulled an entire series (Megan Wants a Millionaire) after one of the contestants killed his estranged wife and then himself.  As much as I loved the ...of Love franchise and all of its spin-offs, I thought that was the wisest decision to make.  It feels strange to watch a dead man on TV, let alone one who has done such horrible things.  RHOBH is slightly different, in that Russell Armstrong certainly wasn't a primary cast member, but I was left feeling a little disgusted with myself, because I didn't change the channel tonight.  I kept watching.

How responsible is Bravo for Russell Armstrong's death?  Not at all, really.  He knew he had things he didn't want the world to know, but he signed the release and appeared on the show anyway.  He made his decisions, and he should have been more prepared to live with the consequences.  He wasn't.  Should Bravo have had more safety nets in place to prevent this from happening?  I don't know.  It wasn't up to the network to see how deep his problems were reached if his family didn't see it coming.

Should I have kept watching?  Or even watched in the first place?  Probably not.  But we all like a trainwreck.  That's why reality is so successful; it appeals to that part of us that loves to see what nonsense other human beings are up to.  There have been a few interesting articles in the last few weeks about how far is too far for reality, and whether or not there should be a moral code producers should follow in order to care for the participants.  (See NPR and Playboy - careful of that URL if you're at work - for more, said better then I could.)  It's good that it's becoming part of the conversation, but the issue is that reality is so prevalent because it's so cheap, and it's so cheap because they aren't produced under the protective umbrella of unions.  I don't think it's ever going to happen without those protections.

Actors in unions are guaranteed breaks, and certain working conditions, and certain pay rates.  Reality TV participants are not, and they are further hamstrung by incredibly restrictive contracts that basically mean they sell their soul for the chance to be on TV.  I can't figure where the problem starts: in TV for wanting to make money off human tragedy, or in the desire some human beings have for fame, and the lengths they'll go to get their faces on TV.

At its best, I think reality TV is a great way to see a slice of life you wouldn't have seen before, to be exposed to people you would never meet in your daily life, to get a look at how others live, to give people a chance to share their stories.  At its worst, it's exploitative and cruel and damaging to the people who participate.  I don't know what Bravo should have done tonight, but I know that what they did wasn't enough for this viewer.  I also know I'll keep watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills this season, because I want to know what happens next, and I know I won't be the only one.  What I don't like is knowing that the act of viewing makes me complicit in the potential harm this genre has.