What’s that saying? Everything old is new again. Recently, I heard Harrison Ford would be reprising his role as Han Solo for Star Wars Episode VII. Actually the entire ensemble cast was signing on to bring the intergalactic space odyssey back to life. This made me think if we are at such a point where only remakes of past successes are what will drive box office sales? Or better yet, the lack of ingenuity from the rash (yes I said rash) of Kardashian-like and Honey Boo Boo themed reality television series that hit our channels every spring and fall. Is there no original content left to be had in the world or have we exhausted creativity as a finite resource? Well, that’s likely a stretch and I would say it has more to do with pure economics. An old movie remake already has an engaged audience and hence less risk for the studio to ensure commercial success. But seriously, a geriatric Han Solo – have you know respect? Now think back to your last sick day when all you wanted to do was to channel surf in between Neo-Citron doses and you found yourself caught between episodes of Kitchen Nightmare and Judge Judy. What is driving this excess of recycled, unoriginal, and dare I say cheap content? Well folks, it is pure economics, the large broadcast networks are looking to decrease costs driven from increased competition from subscription-based sources, online and even piracy. All the media conglomerates are fighting for their share of your wallet. And reality television is the cheapest content to produce so when audiences engage in record numbers, the networks cash in. Then layer on the added revenue provided by product placement and it’s a gold mine. Is there even Coke in those cups on American Idol? I doubt that.
Don’t get me wrong, I can stay glued to a marathon of Storage Wars for an entire morning over the holiday break like anyone, but I start getting concerned when it seems that this is the only type of content coming down the pipe today. When have we reached reality television overload? What are the effects on our society and culture long term? According to West (2001), “Agenda-setting studies document that media can affect the public’s sense of priorities” (p. 111). In this case, West was referring more to media news outlets but the same concept could apply to media in terms of entertainment content. The vast amount of cable cord cutting and increased competition is further exacerbating the problem. Nevertheless, the content creators have a role to play to ensure “cultural capital” flourishes given they act as a key intermediary in its distribution. According to Jackson et al (2011), “The maintenance and accumulation of cultural capital are therefore connected to the structural role of cultural intermediaries who act as gatekeepers, and to the social mechanism of consumption, which is also the site of social struggles for defining and controlling taste and lifestyles” (p. 88). The question then becomes when the overall quality of content is in decline what will be the longer term effect on culture and society as a whole? Will we become a less sophisticated or refined society?
Excusing the overly dramatized plots and reality “star” exploitation (note the quotations) – is there any good to come from reality television? Well other than the sheer entertainment value depending on your taste there is evidence showing that reality television may actually help with democracy in countries under oppressive rule. Lynch noted that (2006), “…reality television voting has been the first time many citizens have voted in any free and fair wide-scale elections.”
Ultimately, we – as the audience have the power. We have the power to change the channel, to read a book or even search for new sources of content online. And it’s not all doom and gloom, I must say I am finding more thought provoking content from my HBO subscription these days, but at an additional twenty dollars per month. Plus, the fact that I can pick up an episode any time, makes it all the better in terms of convenience. Nevertheless, until we demand more it is unlikely things will change. Deborah Adams (2008) commented, “The most obvious culprit is the media, that very form that provides so little substance or entertainment, and yet from which we can’t (and don’t try to) escape”. It is evident that this is an evolution of the medium where the days of “free” broadcasted content will be gone. In the future, audiences will certainly have more choice, but choice and higher quality content will most certainly come with a price tag attached.
I’ll end with one final thought according to McCluhan (2004) if the “medium is the message” and this is how the medium is evolving – what message are we sending?
Adams, D. (2008). Curled up with a good book. Retrieved February 25, 2013, from http://www.curledup.com/realover.htm
Jackson, J. D., Nielsen, G., & Hsu, Y. (2011). Mediated Society: a Critical Sociology of Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lynch, Marc (2006). Reality is Not Enough: The Politics of Arab Reality TV. Retrieved February 25, 2013, from http://www.tbsjournal.com/lynch.html
McCluhan, M. (2004). Understanding Media: The Extension of Men. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
West, D.M. (2001). The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s.
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