The rioters’ actions in Washington DC are deeply troubling. An angry mob, whipped up by Donald Trump, fought what Joe Biden described as an “insurrection”.  The violence followed an inflammatory speech by Trump in which he repeated his alternative reality laced with false claims of election fraud. The anger was misplaced, the election was fair, the mob was misinformed by America’s president – which is why their actions are so troubling. How is it that alternative realities have come to prevail? And what has become of truth? In the third of my films on social wellbeing, I put these questions to academics and psychologists. In unpicking alternative realities, a spotlight fell on the impact of reality TV. We love to consume ‘treat shows’, as TV execs describe them. But, in these difficult times, we must ask whether false narratives are consuming us?  

The new year brings with it many challenges, on both sides of the Atlantic. Covid death-rates are spiralling, hospitals are approaching capacity. In the UK, the last-minute Brexit deal has left many unprepared, the third national lockdown brings renewed difficulties. In the US, fear, embarrassment and regret overshadow democracy as Trump’s tattered presidency limps through its final days. But hope springs eternal. The new year is only a few days old, 2021 remains a blank canvas. The reality is that there is hope ahead, if we are daring enough to see it and seize it while we can.

The rioters in Washington illustrate the choice we face. On one hand, there is soon to be a new US president and new compassion. There are new vaccines and new light at the end of the tunnel. The road ahead may be difficult, but reality demands that we follow it. We must accept that vaccinations are valid, we may need to learn new skills, perhaps even set out in new directions. We must find new solutions to the horrors we’ve seen in recent months. Alternatively, we can cling to fear and fantasy, and skip reality altogether in the vain hope that it will all be alright in the end, just like it is on TV. In Washington, at the time of writing, this line of thought led to the deaths of four people.

 

“It feels good”

Amid the recent pulling of Christmas crackers it dawned on me that, quick as a flash, hopes of treasure are replaced by a crap joke and a small, novelty, plastic thingamajig – and that reality TV is not dissimilar. Paper-thin and empty at heart. So why do we like it? Because we always have done. Psychoanalyst Justin Frank told me that: “Reality television was not foisted upon an innocent audience. It grew out of what people liked in the first place.”

Sadly, we’ve been enjoying the pain of others for millennia – though these days we’re less likely to throw Christians to the lions for the pleasure of the masses. Instead, TV producers excite animalistic impulses in us by raining hardship upon goofy volunteers who are content to show the nation their need for love, wealth, advancement, fame, cockroaches, marriage or nudity.

Watching from the safety of our front room, we’re free to express the emotions that the producers have deliberately sought to provoke. And we feel all the better for doing so. Psychotherapist Aaron Balick explained that: “There’s a braying mass and it’s ugly, but emotionally it feels good because you can get this stuff out of your system.”

For those of us who’ve had a tough time recently, it helps to see a bucket of mealworms dunked on a schmuck on the TV. His discomfort expresses our own, perhaps even diminishes it. Laughing at him serves as an escape. Having escaped from the real world however, we risk losing our interest in it. It’s boring by comparison, particularly when fanciful fiction is only ever a click away.

Whether we like to bury ourselves in Real Housewives gossip, Celebrity news, Love Island intrigues or tropes from TOWIE, our devices instantly transport us to a world where ready-made love, easy money, vulnerability and humiliation appear in quick succession – as if they’ve been scripted, which of course they have. It’s easy to pretend it’s real since that’s the messaging we’re being sold. And if such glittering entertainment is ‘real’, reality itself is small potatoes. So why bother with it?

 

“Reality TV is in in reality, extremely staged”

The moment we ditch reality, we abandon a whole load of other things with it. How can we encounter the real world, and reach our own opinion about it, express our support or dissent for public policy, or vote with any clarity, if reality is a mystery to us? If we are less informed than we need to be we might mistake fiction for fact.

Between 2004 and 2015, Donald Trump appeared on the TV show The Apprentice. He played a role as a decisive businessman who told people “you’re fired”. Firing people in this way wasn’t an occasional part of the cut and thrust of Trump’s business dealings, it was the scripted conclusion of each episode. Many people believed otherwise, perhaps including Trump himself, who when he got to the White House fired people just as readily, acting in the way he had done on TV.

In truth, all reality TV shows are written weeks before they’re made. Audience figures rise and fall during an episode, and these numbers (broken down into 10-minute sections) are tracked and sold to advertisers who use them when deciding what should and shouldn’t happen in the script. There’s nothing spontaneous from the cast. It’s not showfriends, it’s showbusiness.

It’s fabricated under the direction of advertisers and packaged up under clever messaging – clever because parts of it are true. But it’s up to you to work out which are true and which aren’t. NYU history professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen, told me that: “Reality TV has made it difficult for people to distinguish sometimes between fact and fiction because reality TV is in reality, extremely staged.”  The audience know that Trump is real, so is his business, so is the prize of an apprenticeship and so are the contestants. But perhaps not everyone knows that the action, the arguments, and the outcome are all constructed from the start. So is it fact or fiction? Like most reality TV, The Apprentice doesn’t have much to say about the world, it’s a gameshow. It’s designed simply to hold your attention and keep you in place on the sofa until the ads roll round again.

 

Keeping it real

In the world of reality TV, Trump was a natural, “he knows very well how to manipulate this boundary between truth and fiction,” Ben-Ghiat said. Unencumbered by truth at the best of times, Trump instinctively understood the power of branding and messaging. In 2016, he took allegations about Hillary Clinton’s emails and twisted them into something more than they were. Psychologist John Gartner told me: “There is a power in branding. Crooked Hillary. You know, she wasn’t crooked, but it stuck.”

Traditionally, we the audience have relied on ‘middlemen’ – journalists – to disentangle fact from fiction. The TV news media however also serve the interests of advertisers, who again demand big audience figures. This is why many broadcasters ‘sex up’ reality with flashy ‘news alerts’ and bright red breaking news banners swooshing across the screen. Once again reality is diluted into infotainment. According to Balick, infotainment is “non-stop stimulation and sensation. And you just become attached to the sensation.”

Ultimately, if we ignore the real-world we miss potential threats, such as a genuinely harmful virus, or climate change, or a narcissist’s misplaced claims of election fraud. The solution is for TV audiences to ask more questions – both of themselves and of what they’re watching. We all like a treat from time to time. But treats all day every day become tiring, particularly since there’s a vast wealth of riches beyond TV’s artificial creations. And that’s the truth! We just need to seize it, while we can.

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