Reality (television) bites

The 1950’s are often referred to as the Golden Age of Television. This was a decade of abundance in America. The US had just won the war and Americans were beginning to enjoy the fruits of their victory. Situated in the newly discovered suburbia, they welcomed the odd Television box into their living rooms. TV became more than a piece of furniture; it was the new American pastime. Within one decade the popularity of Television had rocketed like the Soviet Sputnik.

But all this would come to a halt with the Quiz Show Scandal of 1958 which revealed that contestants on the wildly popular quiz shows were often given the answers to their questions before hand. America was shocked to learn that the game was rigged. The scandal was of such magnitude that Congress decided to hold hearings on the matter and begin an investigation into the workings of television.

The deceptive nature of TV was exposed.

Nowadays, Israel finds itself engulfed in a similar scandal as previous participants of the Big Brother reality program claim that they were given psychiatric pills during the show’s filming. These revelations lead to a special hearing in the Knesset’s Education Committee which soon turned into a reality spectacle of itself.

Reality television is a strange phenomenon. On the one hand, we are currently experiencing a second Golden Age of Television. TV dramas have never before been so sophisticated, multifaceted and demanding. Long gone are the days of channel surfing during prime time. Miss one quote by Tony Soprano or Don Draper and you might as well miss the entire episode.

On the other hand, there has never before been so much junk in TV’s trunk.

Reality television is flourishing with new formats emerging on a daily basis. From Survivor to Beauty and the Geek, from Kim Kardashian to the Real Housewives, reality shows are the kings of television’s Game of Thrones.

Reality producers maintain that their programs have many merits.  They view such shows as an experiment in human nature, one which allows us to gain insight into both the participants and the viewers. If this is the case, we should not be surprised by the results of the Big Brother experiment. On the contrary, the current scandal reasserts previous psychological conclusions. The human reaction to being locked in a home with strangers while continuously monitored by cameras is distress.

Yet the Big Brother scandal also exhibits the vast difference between psychological research and reality TV. Presently, research involving human subjects is bound to strict ethical principles. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, or Stanley Milgram’s electrifying obedience experiments, would have most likely not been approved were they proposed today.

This is not the case with reality programs. In Israel, such shows are not bound to an ethical code. Television is therefore able to conduct large scale experiment on human subjects without taking into consideration the effect they may have on the participants or the dedicated viewership. As the audience’s threshold of excitement reaches fever pitch, reality television is expected to continue pushing the envelope further and further towards the extreme. The Hunger Games maybe closer than we think.

While the Big Brother affair is sure to sell more newspapers and television commercials, it could also pave the way for stricter regulation on reality programs thereby safeguarding the well being of future participants. For this to happen, the Knesset’s committees must continue to investigate the matter while at the same time curb the MK’s appetite for a show of their own.

1958 saw the decline and fall of American Quiz Shows. A cheated public no longer welcomed such programs into its homes. Reality television will not suffer the same fate. Tonight, millions of Israelis will tune in to the Big Brother show in order to learn the identity of this year’s winner. After all, the show must go on.


About the Author
Dr. Ilan Manor (PhD Oxford University) is a diplomacy scholar at Tel Aviv University. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at