What Is Reality on Reality TV?

I was describing a new reality show I'd been watching for review -- called My Crazy Obsession- - when my wife asked the kind of salient question that probably is never heard in the programming department of any cable network.

"When did exploiting the mentally unstable become an accepted form of television entertainment?" she wondered aloud.

Indeed. On the episode of My Crazy Obsession that was sent out for review by TLC, half the show was devoted to a woman who wore only pink clothes, lived in an apartment totally decorated in pink, dyed her dog's coat pink -- even carried a small bottle of food coloring so she could get restaurants to serve her food in a pinkened state.

The other half was spent profiling a couple who collect Cabbage Patch Kids -- and are so devoted to their collection that the structure where they house their 3,000-plus dolls is more than twice as large as the trailer where they live. They arrange play-dates for their dolls and have one special doll, which they carry around as though it were a child, speaking for it as though they were ventriloquists-in-training. Cue a shot of their adult daughter (human), rolling her eyes.

Did I mention this was on TLC -- formerly known as The Learning Channel? They long ago figured out that they needed to downplay the Learning part of their name because, well, they're now a channel devoted to reality shows about crazy people. And "Learning" in the name of a cable channel aimed at dolts is as much of a turn-off as the word "Fried" or "Sugar" is in a product name to people who want to believe they're eating a health-conscious diet. Hence, it's KFC in all the advertising -- not Kentucky Fried Chicken. And it's been years since Kellogg's called their Corn Pops cereal Sugar Corn Pops.

But back to reality TV, which is the cancer that is rotting television from the inside out. It's been a sensation -- and an increasingly dominant force -- for more than a decade. In fact, it's been with us since the days before television.

Indeed, all these shows had their forebears in the days of radio. But, for the sake of argument, let's leave our family-tree tracing to the early days of TV. There are really only four models for most reality shows, four shows from which all others spring.

Let's start with Truth or Consequences, which was a game show but which can really be seen as the ancestor of everything from Survivor and Amazing Race to Fear Factor and Wipeout (not to mention Super Sloppy Double Dare). The idea has always been the same: ordinary people doing oddball stunts in hopes of winning big prizes.

This commentary continues on my website.