Blog Action Day: a look back at reality TV’s relationship to the environment

Today is Blog Action Day, when more than 15,000 blogs will post in some way about this year’s issue, the environment. It’d be artificial and out of character for me to suddenly start posting polemics on environmentalism, because that’s not what this site is about. But as I was thinking about how to participate, I realized that reality television’s history is full of stories related to the planet, and while I’ve covered those stories in the past, it’s easy to forget about them.

Here, then, is a selection of stories from reality blurred‘s seven-year archives that directly or tangentially had to do with reality TV’s relationship to the environment:

  • Perhaps the most spectacular documentary to air on television last year was the BBC’s and Discovery Channel’s Emmy-winning Planet Earth, which re-introduced us to the earth’s magnificence via incredible high-definition detail and footage of creatures never before captured on film. As a result, it captivated audiences and became the best-selling HD DVD yet.
  • While stunning in its beauty, sometimes the earth is awesome in its destructiveness, as Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, showed. It explored the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the devastation that both nature and human beings caused.
  • While there’s yet to be a reality show focused directly on the environment, there’s one in development: E-Topia, a series produced by Leonardo DiCaprio that will follow an extreme makeover of an entire town, which will turn green in the process.
  • Other shows are becoming more environmentally conscious, even if it seems like some might just doing it for the attention. The 20th season of The Real World is currently being produced in Hollywood, and its entire production is going green for the first time. Tyra Banks also took her show, America’s Next Top Model, green this year, although the show’s efforts seemed to be a little hypocritical.
  • While many shows, from Survivor to The Amazing Race, have drawn attention to the world’s more spectacular natural locations, some reality shows have had a negative impact on the environment. MTV and Bunim-Murray’s Gauntlet 2 Challenge was accused of destroying and burying sea turtle eggs in Tobago to build a set, a charge producers denied.
  • Some reality stars have done their part for nature or the world’s creatures. Ethan Zohn and Jenna Morasca stripped naked for a PETA ad, as did American Idol 2‘s Vanessa Olivarez. Clay Aiken did not strip naked for PETA; instead, the organization accused him of being “neutered” because of an out-of-context statement Clay made about accidentally killing a kitten. They eventually backed off.
  • Because of his relationship to animals, an undisputed star of reality TV was Steve Irwin, who dedicated his time on television to helping people appreciate the world’s creatures by doing dangerous things with them. He died last year after being stung by a stingray, but his daughter Bindi has picked up where he left off.
  • A star who won’t ever reach Steve Irwin status is Man vs. Wild‘s Bear Grylls, whose show purported to show him living off the land, but was revealed to be somewhat fake. The show has since been edited to remove or disclaim the fake parts.
  • Not all networks appreciate nature and its inhabitants like the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. FOX objected to a National Geographic special it planned to air because of “‘mounting’ or graphically sexual movements” among animals.
  • Even awful, forgettable shows can have an impact on the environment–or the environment can impact their cast members. ABC’s 2003 series I’m a Celebrity–Get Me Out of Here was supposed to be like Survivor for celebs. But even though there were fake plants and rocks, the celebs couldn’t handle it, having their beds shielded from the rain and suing after being bitten by leeches.
  • Nature in Australia didn’t get a great reception from reality show cast members on Outback House, which was investigated for animal cruelty after reports that newborn lambs died unnecessarily and a participant kicked a rooster.
  • An early reality TV controversy came during Survivor Australia, when PETA and others were upset after Michael Skupin–the cast member who later fell into a fire; draw your own conclusions–killed a pig that may or may not have been drugged or planted by the producers. The episode had to be edited because it was so graphic. Ultimately, the incident led to a change in the law in Australia.
  • Apparently, we’ve grown more used to watching people produce their own food from nature, because the relatively graphic slaughter of two chickens on Kid Nation a few weeks ago was barely noticed.
  • And speaking of chickens, the first, terribly awful season of Big Brother included often-forgotten houseguests: a flock of chickens. After inspiring a grown man to turn himself into “Chicken George,” they were adopted by the crew and rescued by Bob Barker.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.