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a competitor on Sugar Dome
A Sugar Bowl competitor hard at work
A couple of weeks ago I was watching a new show on the Food Network called Sugar Dome. It's basically a revamped Food Network Challenge, where the contestants make a cake incorporating a required theme and elements. I've always enjoyed watching these and seeing what can be done with cake, sugar and fondant. And I do enjoy watching the competition and trying to guess which team will win. But lately things have escalated. It's no longer enough to give the teams a theme or required ingredient. No, someone has decided that what this thing needs is... twists! Well, okay, maybe giving the teams an additional requirement can add to it but don't lets get carried away: as I'm watching this new show, the host comes in two more times to issue additional requirements. I was as dismayed as the contestants and I didn't even have to do it! Follow me below the orange croissant and I shall explain why this is an issue.....

I've been around television my entire married life (my Hubby is a TV engineer) and I understand ratings and the importance of keeping the viewers interested. Television's purpose is as a medium to sell advertisements. Anything else it may provide is a bonus: the creation of great characters, stories and emotional involvement is just an adjunct to the ads. Popularity means only an increase in what the network can charge for ad time. Of course, the people who make the shows try to provide those characters and stories, they really do create art sometimes. But, make no mistake - to the network that airs even those shows that transcend the medium, it's all about the ad rates.

The proliferation of networks that came with cable television in the 1980s expanded available ad time but it also spread the viewership across a much wider landscape of channels. This drove networks to find content that would attract viewers to their channel and away from everyone else. Reality TV became one way to do that.

cast and logo of the Real World season 1
Season 1 of the Real World

Reality TV is not new to the medium - Candid Camera (which began in 1948) was an early pioneer and PBS became a refuge for "true life" stories - but reality
TV has exploded in the past two decades. Some cultural pundits believe that MTV began the race with its seminal Real World (based on a Dutch show called Nummer 28) which premiered in 1992 (I myself blame Real People). Despite that being open for argument, the 1990s marked the start of the reality TV avalanche. The strike by the Writer's Guild in 1988 also contributed - why have a scripted show when you could throw a bunch of people together in a house and roll camera? Now we have shows about everything from gold prospectors to pawn shop owners to swamp people. It seems almost anyone can get a show anymore (lookin' at you, Sarah Who).

This proliferation of shows has created an intense race for advertising dollars. And that has, in turn, led to wilder and wilder shows. Survivor, Fear Factor, Cops and even tabloid talk shows went into some crazy territory. We saw drunks being hauled to jail, people being horrible to one another, people eating stuff and doing things that many viewers found abhorrent. Yet the ratings - and with them, ad rates - were high. TV as a whole saw this as a signal to go even further. Add to this the pregnant pause (thank you, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) and reality TV has become a place to find excitement and competition beyond sports.

This leads me to think of a pair of stories written by Stephen King: The Long Walk and The Running Man. Both are set in a dystopian future and both involve televised competition.

In the near future, where America has become a police state, one hundred boys are selected to enter an annual contest where the winner will be awarded whatever he wants for the rest of his life. The game is simple - maintain a steady walking pace of four miles per hour without stopping. Three warnings, and you're out - permanently
The Walk isn't televised itself, but the news follows it every step of the way and spectators line the parts of the Walk that go through towns and cities. The news cameras turn away, though, if one of the boys is "removed" from the race. This is more to protect the dictator in charge than the viewing audience, the latter not being privy to the method of removing a boy from the Walk. The reader is left to assume that if they knew, the dictator might be seen in a bad light. But I wonder....

The Running Man, from the same collection of novellas as the previous story (The Bachman Books), sees this competition for money even further.

It is 2025 and reality TV has progressed to the point where people are willing to wager their lives in exchange for a chance at enormous wealth. Ben Richards is desperate - he needs money to treat his daughter's illness. His last chance is entering a game show called The Running Man where the objective is to elude police and specially trained trackers for a month. The reward is a cool billion dollars. The catch is that everyone else on the planet is watching and willing to turn him in for a reward.
To my mind, this is dangerously close to what we are seeing right now. As it is, people are willing to do an awful lot for money. We have seen a few contestants on Survivor get severely injured or fall ill from pushing themselves. The producers are good about calling in their medics in such cases but they never edit these events out. Never. These do, admittedly, make for compelling viewing but one wonders, is it because viewers are seeing strength in the face of adversity or a near-fatal event? How much of it is schadenfreude or prurient interest?
gladiators battle in the Roman Colosseum
Is this where we are headed?

So, how did a cooking competition get me onto this line of thought? Escalation. When producers think that they have to add more tension to a cooking show to make it more exciting, what is to stop them from doing this to any other reality show? Imagine Survivor with weapons. I shudder to think.

How far will we go? At what point do we say, "Enough!"? Will it take someone actually dying during one of these stunts or will that just be seen as a new goal for the competition shows? There are already many similarities between our society and the glory days of Rome. Reality TV - especially the competition-for-money kind - is our circus as much as snack foods are our bread. I hate to think that we will end up throwing people to the lions, either literally or figuratively.

Originally posted to The Way The Wind Blows on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 02:45 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for reigning in Reality TV (41+ / 0-)

    I was also reminded of an episode of Dr. Who in which this scenario is played out with existing reality "game shows."

    Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

    by Purple Priestess on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 04:27:49 AM PST

  •  The only reality shows I watch are (5+ / 0-)

    Food Network Star and Worst Cooks in America.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 03:02:27 PM PST

  •  We could be heading for the Hunger Games. (9+ / 0-)

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 03:02:43 PM PST

    •  That was my daughter's comment, too (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      twigg, la urracca, bumbi

      And I won't disagree. It just wasn't the first thing I thought of as I still have not read or seen it.

      Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

      by Purple Priestess on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 03:16:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think you will enjoy it (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        la urracca, bumbi

        The Hunger Games takes the point of your Diary, and extrapolates it into a nightmare future; a future that The Hunger Games is clear we must avoid.

        I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
        but I fear we will remain Democrats.

        by twigg on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 12:13:49 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  a show where everyone gets out alive, together... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          starfu

          ...and through cooperation. They do some tough task that really needs to be done. A show in which there are strong disincentives to kicking people off the island.

          That's the show I wanna see.

          There's alot more humanity in the act of striving together than there is forcing folks to fight for scraps...

          Cheers.

  •  I think it has more to do with cost cutting. (6+ / 0-)

    It's far cheaper to pay people to compete for a nebulous prize than to pay a fair salary for actors/writers/etc.

    And a culture that believes that ANYONE could be a star tends to not care as much about what people have to do to become a Star...

    Hell, the point at which I decided that Reality TV had gone too far was when they actually had torture on TV... You think I'm making this up.

    I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

    by detroitmechworks on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 03:11:56 PM PST

  •  the Darwin Awards goes Network (5+ / 0-)
    So, how did a cooking competition get me onto this line of thought? Escalation. When producers think that they have to add more tension to a cooking show to make it more exciting, what is to stop them from doing this to any other reality show? Imagine Survivor with weapons. I shudder to think.

    How far will we go? At what point do we say, "Enough!"? Will it take someone actually dying during one of these stunts or will that just be seen as a new goal for the competition shows? There are already many similarities between our society and the glory days of Rome. Reality TV - especially the competition-for-money kind - is our circus as much as snack foods are our bread. I hate to think that we will end up throwing people

    yksitoista ulotteinen presidentin shakki. / tappaa kaikki natsit "Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) 政治委员, 政委‽ Warning - some snark above ‽

    by annieli on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 03:15:02 PM PST

  •  It's everywhere (6+ / 0-)

    On Project Runway this week they added a twist in the form of a second androgynous outfit for a male model. Top Chef has the Last Chance Kitchen. I also watch Next Food Network Star , The Amazing Race and all the iterations of Ru-Paul's Drag Race. That's basically it for me and reality shows (unless they're on the food network or related to Runway).

    I left advertising in 1991, just before The Real World and Big Brother and I'm sure all the reality shows are to save money, period.  The escalation really started in 2001. CBS had Survivor and NBC needed something, so voila, The Fear Factor. That's what happened.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 04:06:35 PM PST

  •  don't watch any of it (5+ / 0-)

    they do not get to advertise to me, but then I have little to spend anyway

    my idea of a good reality show was the French Chef, educational , not competitive

    -7.75, -6.05 And these wars; they can't be won Does anyone know or care how they begun?-Matt Bellamy

    by nicolemm on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 05:25:19 PM PST

  •  I agree that the cooking shows have jumped the (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ojibwa, Purple Priestess, chantedor, DuzT

    shark and I particularly noticed it with the same Sugar Dome that got you started. Just looking at the tv guide description I decided I couldn't stand the tension of that one either. But I never was one to watch any of those, even Iron Chef. I don't like runway fashion shows or singing shows that make people cry. And the cake shows- don't yell at me - I'd be thinking all the time if I worked there.

    I really thought we had reached the edge of reality (is that a game show or a soap opera?) and then I saw an ad for Parolees and Pit Bulls: rescuing a drowning pregnant dog. I'm really starting to believe that the media is using the versificator. A grab-bag of keywords to shock and absorb your attention.

    The versificator first comes up in chapter 4 of 1984 when Winstońs job at the Record́s department is being described. Winstońs job is to ̈̈supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, novels....̈̈ He goes on to say however, that there are other departments that deal with ̈̈proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment....which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kleidoscope known as a versificator.̈ With the versificator there is no required human input to create these forms of entertainment and a brainless machine such as this obviously lacks the creative ability that a human would have.
  •  I'm also reminded of an old sci-fi movie (7+ / 0-)

    called Rollerball in  which the media are controlled by transnational corporations (now, we all now that is pretty far fetched) and want to continue to attract audiences through increasing violence (again, another far fetched idea).

  •  I saw this show somewhat accidentally... (5+ / 0-)

    ...the other night, and I was just saying to my wife how the "food" component is now merely incidental.  Does it even matter that these things are technically edible?  I mean, they're spinning, and smoke is coming out of them!

    All the stupid 'twists' are indeed annoying.  I noticed that especially in the food truck competitions.  Just have them make the dang food and stop introducing the annoying sidetracks.  Makes the show harder to watch.

    •  Exactly. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      elginblt

      When will they realize that annoying the viewer isn't good business?  

      Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

      by Purple Priestess on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 09:07:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The first year of The Great Food Truck Race (0+ / 0-)

      ... was obviously rigged. When one team (The women making Vietnamese sandwiches) won every single week until the finale, the finale was designed so they couldn't possibly win -- so there could be some suspense about the outcome.

      I agree about the annoying twists. And Food Network has become pretty predictable. All of it's new shows are just reworking of the "Chopped" concept. And even "Chopped" has become boring as they go farther and farther into trying to give the contestants ingredients that either have no place on a fine-dining plate or can't possibly be cooked well in the time given.

      Why can't Food Network go back to doing actual cooking shows? When Good Eats shut down, they said farewell to their last real cooking show in prime time.

      And how about building a show here and there around a REAL chef, rather than the fake celebrity chefs they manufacture themselves? Think these "personalities" are actually chefs? Read this review of Guy Fieri's "American Kitchen" in Times Square. I think the next show I want to see is Robert Irvine doing his "Restaurant Impossible" thing on Fieri's restaurants.

      Once upon a time, cooking shows were Julia Child introducing sophisticated recipes to an unsophisticated American public. But eventually, this brought us Paula Dean's Heart Attack and Diabetes Kitchen, and Rachel Ray Pretending to Cook.

      Food Network has become reality show competition wall to wall. And very little of what they produce is edible.  

      Wealth doesn't trickle down -- it rises up.

      by elsaf on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 09:28:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  That Real World photo is from either season 3 or (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Purple Priestess, elginblt

    4 in San Francisco with Pedro, Puck, et al.

    The first place I started seeing all the twists thrown in was Big Brother.  As Julie "Chenbot" Chen would say:

    BUT FIRST, there is a twist.
    I think this is endemic of how the producers of these shows have zero respect for the participants or the audience.  Most of these shows are centered around humiliation of the participants.  And then they think that the audience must suffer from so much attention deficit that they have to keep lobbing in shiny twists to keep them watching.  And don't get me started on how these shows waste half their air time with "coming up", and "previously" segments, rehashing the same shit that will be shown after the next commercial break.  They really must think their core audience has an IQ of 40 or less.

    I used to watch a lot more reality tv, mainly for the snark value and then chat about it over at twop.com.  But I grew to find it kind of exhausting and repetitive.

    •  Since I never watched (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Miggles

      The Real World I had to trust what I was told. Oops.

      Producers! Don't get me started. So many are fresh out of film school or TV school or wherever they went to school to learn "how it's done." The one thing they all have in common - besides arrogance - is that they never listen to the old hands who have been in the Biz for years. Often to their detriment. But there are always more.....

      Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

      by Purple Priestess on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 09:42:24 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The funny thing is that the margin of cost (7+ / 0-)

    is actually getting closer and closer to scripted television (and in some cases has surpassed it).  You not only have to pay the talent (sic) - popular reality show hosts/judges make as much as the highest-paid television actors right now - but also the higher cost of insurance, and the army of people behind the scenes who create and script each moment.  What helps defray the cost most is the ungodly amount of product placement they can get away with, in ways that would be obtrusive in scripted television.

    My brother used to work on a reality show, and he'd tell me they'd have to get to a location hours ahead of time, set up the cameras and lighting, run the talent (sic) through their pre-written lines, etc.  so that they could 'show up' and 'hang out' in a way that makes audiences think it's all spontaneous.   What I find most interesting about this phenomenon is that (I think) audiences know it's all scripted, so there's a mutual understanding between producer and consumer that we're all lying to each other, which is neat.

    If you want a good laugh, check out this brief article, then check the date.

    Also: obligatory Idiocracy clip.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Sat Dec 01, 2012 at 09:36:45 PM PST

  •  I admit I watch Chopped. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    elginblt, FindingMyVoice, high uintas

    It 's a lot like my kitchen. Ok, I have two hot dogs (that I bought for training the dogs but didn't use.) a sample size box of Life cereal; some canned whipped cream and half a bag of frozen peas in my kitchen.

    Mr Grover just called and said he's on his way home.

    Thirty minutes on the clock. Prepare an entree!

    Actually, I have learned about some funky ingredients on the show that I didn't grow up with and never would have tried. The judges tend to explain funky ingredients and tricks to preparing them. And I've tried quite a few(not eel or Rocky Mountain oysters though) with good results.

    But for shows where the end result is not actually edible, they don't appeal to me. But as art, I suppose they're kind of cool.

    I don't intend to watch Sugar Dome. The restaurant turn-around shows (the couple I've watched) tend to just bug me, mostly because I'm astounded by how many people sink hundreds of thousands of dollars buying restaurants when they know nothing about business or running a restaurant or running a kitchen.

    But compared to the horrible network shows like Apprentice, Fear factor, Hell's Kitchen, etc  I do kind of feel like Food Network's goal is NOT to simply humiliate people in their competition  shows.  So while I don't sit down and watch most of them, I don't actively rush over and turn off Cupcake Wars if the tv is on in the background.

    But that Sweet Genius dude is just too much.

    © grover


    So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

    by grover on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 12:50:37 AM PST

  •  Your link to the fall of the Roman Empire (0+ / 0-)

    pretty much ruins the diary at the end.  It is a list of right-wing talking-points with the roman empire as a back-drop.

    Here is a typical example:  "Redistribution of Wealth": in 140 BC blah blah blah.  The roman empire was still very much ascendant at 140 BC.  Blaming central food stores of free grain, a practice common in pretty much ALL early civilization, is frickin retarded.

    Counter example: Interesting that they don't mention reliance on a "professional" army.  As the populace sunk into debt-servitude-turn-peasantry, they were no longer available to serve in the armed forces.  Rome had to pay through the nose for mercenaries because peasants couldn't/wouldn't be released (the fear was if they were allowed to fight, they'd want something for it, such as their freedom).  Jealous emperors also had a knack of having their best generals executed, because in a military dictatorship - everyone is a potential enemy.

    and their contempt for the Latin schools was applauded by Theodoric himself, who gratified their prejudices, or his own, by declaring that the child who had trembled at a rod would never dare to look upon a sword.

    by ban48 on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 05:17:39 AM PST

  •  And this, really?: "Rome found itself (0+ / 0-)

    increasingly  using “illegal immigrants” from outside their nation ..."

    You are really going to link to this crap to support your diary?  Rome was an expansive empire.  First of all, the romans were the "illegal immigrants" marching into other people's territories, planting their banner, and demanding obedience.  Secondly, the world at that time was much less populated.  An entire nation of barbarians could be invited into the empire and allowed to settle vacant land.  And the Goths were invited in - but the neighboring romans were jealous so had more and more restrictions placed on the barbarians, and shit really hit the fan when the emperor has all their male children killed - this didn't go over well with the 'barbarians' serving in the legions.

    So against that backdrop you are going to link to this racist shit: " ... Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco, Raleigh and all large cities suffer millions of illegal immigrants.  Uncounted millions of them cannot and do not speak English.  Millions work under the table without paying taxes."

    Did you even read the article you are linking to?

    and their contempt for the Latin schools was applauded by Theodoric himself, who gratified their prejudices, or his own, by declaring that the child who had trembled at a rod would never dare to look upon a sword.

    by ban48 on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 06:27:52 AM PST

  •  Or lets talk about this one: Government Corruption (0+ / 0-)
    Government Corruption – The Roman Empire fell because it was bankrupted by its leaders. Roman Senators were selfish and self-absorbed, determined to hoard the huge wealth of the empire and enhance their wealth even further. The common people lost all power.
    "Government Corruption" vs. "Virtuous Military" is a common right-wing meme when paralleling Rome with the US.  The problem is: the military was the politicians - or at-least the only ones that mattered.  The Senate had minor financial powers which they could abuse to enrich themselves, but ultimately they were the emperor's bitches, and the emperor's were put in-place by the military and knocked off by the military.  In a military dictatorship, there is no such thing as "corruption" because there is no such thing as rule of law, at-least for government officials.  The law is what the emperor says it is when he says it is.  And, by proxy, the same thing goes for the governors he appoints.

    The "common people" lost whatever power they had as soon as dictatorship became the norm.  Imagine the Secret Service knocking off the president and selling the office to the highest bidder, only to have that person knocked off by a general who then assumes the presidency, and you'll get a feel for what political life was like in Rome.  At one point they went 9 months without an emperor because everyone knew it was a death sentence.  Now imagine this repeating every four years or so.  The roman senators were not the instigators or beneficiaries of any of this, it all was driven by the generals.  The only reason the senate was kept around is that it allowed the Romans to pretend they were still a republic and still had rule of law.

    and their contempt for the Latin schools was applauded by Theodoric himself, who gratified their prejudices, or his own, by declaring that the child who had trembled at a rod would never dare to look upon a sword.

    by ban48 on Sun Dec 02, 2012 at 09:36:38 AM PST

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