Former Bravo president and current NBC executive Lauren Zalaznick is undoubtedly very smart and responsible for much of what I love on television. She also made a ridiculous argument that suggest she has very different relationships to her shows than viewers do.
“I reject easy slams like ‘train wreck’ and ‘guilty pleasure. It’s just not a good enough description of why people actually watch what we do,” she said while delivering the opening keynote of the RealScreen Summit Monday.
Instead, she discussed “why viewers connect so much to their favorite reality TV shows,” and highlighted four reasons why they do, according to RealScreen’s summary of her talk, which reports that
“Zalaznick highlighted four elements that the biggest reality shows tended to feature:
‘Me plus,’ which suggests an onscreen character that is a slightly enhanced version of the viewer (‘me but a bit better,’ as she put it); ‘Emotional connection,’ which involved characters developing in such a way so that the viewer bonds as the characters develop; ‘Rooting,’ or cheering for underdogs; and ‘unusual circumstances,’ or fish-out-of-water scenarios.”
This is, of course, a summary of her remarks. But I’m going to judge this summarized, edited version of them–because that’s exactly what viewers of reality TV shows do. We judge. And to pretend otherwise is ludicrous.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single reality show star on Bravo, Oxygen, or Style who is “me but a bit better,” so it’s safe to say that the majority are not. That said, I have no doubt that many reality TV show characters–from The Real Housewives to the cast of Top Chef–are people who have more fame, success, money, and potentially even happiness than I do.
However, the production and editing of reality shows tears people down, and makes sure we feel superior, even if we envy the people we’re watching. I might not mind having the cash of a housewife or the talent of a chef, but I’m super-glad I’m not, say, so insecure I’ve turned my face into an immovable heap of plastic or become a narcissistic asshole.
That’s partially why so many reality shows work, especially the kind that Bravo and Zalaznick perfected: We might want the lives these people have, but their behavior and horribleness makes us glad we don’t.