Real Reels

By Sonya Rehman

There’s something about docudramas and reality television shows which keep audiences slightly more enthralled, rather than say, visual works of fiction. Sure, feature films and sitcoms enjoy a hefty viewership, but what separates fact from fiction – is the latter’s authenticity – and that really is what keeps one tuned in, rather than tuned out.

While some reality TV shows come across as trashy, aural-visual bunk (think ‘Beauty and the Geek’ and ‘The Bachelor’ which make for great excuses to fritter away the hours, whilst nestled into a snug couch called ‘procrastination’), other shows not only have considerable ‘depth’ in their overall content matter, but also, seem extremely significant  and applicable to society, somehow.

One such is a program called ‘You Are What You Eat’ – re-runs of which frequent BBC Food’s transmission currently, on a weekly basis.
Featuring a wiry, sprightly, little, middle-aged nutritionist – Gillian McKeith – who tells it like it is, McKeith puts overweight Brits (with a death-wish) on a fantastic, health-packed detox, (and slightly boot-camp) diet of greens and cardio-exercise.
And the best part about the show? It’s centered on real people with real eating disorders, and always depicts real results (in weight loss) by the end of each episode.

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Gillian Mckeith 

Locally, the only weight loss reality show on Pakistani television seemed to be a program that went by the name of ‘Pounds’.

Produced by a promising, Lahore-based production house called ‘Talking Filmain’, the show proved to be an interesting one as it featured four overweight individuals who decide to change their eating habits, in a bid to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

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‘Pounds’ – Talking Filmain 

And then there was ‘The Swan’ (broadcast in 2004, on FOX) and MTV’s ‘I Want A Famous Face’ – shows (in addition to numerous others) which gave reality television a whole new name…or rather, a whole new, nipped, tucked and botoxed face!

While ‘The Swan’ based itself on a bunch of ‘ugly duckling’ plain Janes who underwent heavy surgery to be transformed into ‘swans’, ‘I Want A Famous Face’ features pimply-faced heebie-jeebies undergoing heavier plastic surgery in the hope to look like their all-time favourite celebrities. Shiver.
Shows such as the aforementioned sure rake in the dough, along with scoring brownie points for a channel’s network due to increased viewership, but what exactly are they trying to preach? ‘A little nip here, a little tuck there, do the hoky (lipo) poky and turn about – because that’s what acceptance is all about!’

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During surgery, ‘The Swan’ 

But apart from a majority of the reality television shows out there – no matter how well-conceived and/or ludicrous, I find it necessary to mention one show, quite stellar in nature.

‘To Catch a Predator’ – hosted by Chris Hansen (aired on Dateline NBC), is a uniquely hard-hitting reality TV show which differentiates itself from the rest. Hansen’s program mainly tracks down and catches child sexual abusers via the internet – who seek to ensnare minors in public chat rooms. Exposing pedophiles and their ‘rings’, ‘To Catch a Predator’ must be one of the best, and most effective  reality shows ever made, that carries with it a healthy dose of societal responsibility.

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About reality television, journalist Michael Hirschorn in an article writes: “The current boom [in reality TV] may be a product of the changing economics of the television business, but reality TV is also the liveliest genre on the set right now. It has engaged hot-button cultural issues – class, sex, and race – that respectable television, rarely touches. And it has addressed a visceral need for a different kind of television at a time when the Web has made more traditionally produced video seem as stagey as Molière.”

So true. And speaking of ‘lively’ – remember ‘The Jerry Springer Show’? With midgets professing to be cheating on their partners, grandmothers confessing to be strippers, breaking chairs, dysfunctional teens, illegitimate children, beef-cake bodyguards ever-ready to tear apart guests (lest they pummel each other’s skulls out)…‘The Jerry Springer Show’ was pooh-poohed yet tuned in to by hundreds of people the world over.

But the decadent, mad little tea-party content of the show has not stopped, and yet, since the early 90s (of The Jerry Springer Show’s inception) till today, the 2000s, the show is still going strong. Even though the authenticity of the stories told by the invited guests has been questioned in the past, viewers can’t really be bothered. Why? Because as Michael Hirschorn put it, reality television, the “liveliest genre” of TV, is engaged in “hot-button cultural issues”, that audiences can’t seem to get enough of.

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Locally, ‘Maachis’, broadcast on a local television station seems to share a format similar to ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ – minus over the top, explicitly taboo subjects, and minus mini-wrestling matches and strings of swear words, of course. While again, many have questioned the local reality show’s authenticity (regarding the guests and their issues), some agree that the show has aided in bringing certain hushed, under rug swept topics – thoroughly prevalent in Pakistani society – to light.

Reality shows are a genre of broadcast entertainment yet to be tapped in to with regard to local television.
Cheap and easy to execute, reality shows don’t really necessitate massive budgets, unless of course shows such as ‘Fear Factor’ (aired on AXN) or Trinny and Susannah’s brilliant ‘What Not To Wear’ show (on BBC Prime) are to be developed.
If local directors did a bit of research and picked unusual topics – of interest to Pakistani audiences – local television’s entertainment sector wouldn’t perhaps appear as sapped and as lacking in quality, as it does today.

It’s time local television quits faking it and starts making it, before it misses the mark. Just imagine if a reality television show such as ‘To Catch a Predator’ was to be developed for local audiences – how brilliant would that be!
Television as a medium – is an immensely powerful one – as it can appeal to a full range of emotions – with gargantuan responsibility that rests on its shoulders, because a channel’s outreach spreads hundreds and thousands of miles and beyond. Locally reality TV ought to be tapped in to, as it not only makes for great viewer entertainment, but also happens to be supported by equally intriguing, social messages.

The Friday Times

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