Surviving Reality Television  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   October 2000

Surviving Reality Television   

Does pop culture belong on page one?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      



"ONLY THE strong survive."
--Jerry Butler

"WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL about Survivor?" I kept asking. I mean, "Eye of the Tiger" wasn't that good a record.
OK, I knew all the hullabaloo wasn't over the group responsible for that best-forgotten "Rocky" flick anthem. It's just that I'm not that big on TV series, now that "Miami Vice" has tragically gone off the air.
No, I never did see America's No. 1 Obsession (for that 15 minutes, anyway). Although I have to admit, I did love reading the text of Susan's final message to Kelly, published in its entirety as a public service by the Washington Post Style section. Talk about harsh. And the fromage factor? Off the charts.
But even if you didn't watch it, it was hard not to be engulfed by "Survivor." It was everywhere.
Take the television newsmagazines. During the month of August, these shows--which range from "Access Hollywood" to "60 Minutes"--featured 97 segments on the "reality-based" (yeah, right) extravaganza, according to a study by the Lawrence, Kansas-based NewsTV Corp. What's more, this was the third straight month that "Survivor" was the champ.
The storyline was the same in the a.m. "Survivor" was Topic No. 1 on August's morning "news" shows, handily outpacing such fare as wildfires in the West and the sad Russian sub saga.
Most obscene, 50 of the 84 segments were on CBS' "The Early Show." Not only was the tarnished Tiffany network trying to resurrect its ratings and freshen up its demos with "Survivor", its tanking morning albatross was trying to, uh, survive through a combination of shameless shilling and sheer overkill.
And newspapers were hardly a "Survivor"-free zone. Papers from San Diego to St. Petersburg ballyhooed the Evil Richard's coronation on page one. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tim Cuprisin actually managed to come up with 25 questions for his "Survivor" quiz. (He gets style points for using the legendary Milwaukee boite Elsa's as one of the wrong answers.)
So is all of this pop culture coverage a bad thing? Is it cheapening America's newspapers and newscasts to lump a TV paroxysm with more serious and traditional front-page material?
Certainly some purists think so. I heard no shortage of complaints (from nonwatchers) about the barrage.
Columbus Dispatch reader Randy Headley neatly summarized this view in his letter to the editor: "I was truly disappointed to see that the Dispatch fell victim to the same misconception as the broadcast media did, that the television show ŒSurvivor' is news. The Aug. 24 front page had ŒRichard wins the million' between the stories about a charity embezzler and a plane crash."
I can understand the sentiment. But it seems to me that's too confining a notion of what's page one news.
Obviously, when it comes to significance and impact, a television show's popularity can't match up to presidential politics or Mideast peace talks. But when 58 million people watch a program's dénouement (only the Super Bowl had more viewers this year), when an entire nation is riveted by such a spectacle, no matter how silly, that tells you something important about our society.
In fact, I'd say, bulked-up pop culture coverage makes our news diet richer. Sure, solid coverage of government, politics and the like is absolutely essential, the bedrock. But one of the ways journalism has improved is by broadening the base: establishing coverage specialties like children and families, aging, religion and values.
The problem arises when coverage of pop culture, or something else relatively soft, starts to overshadow, if not overwhelm, substance; when it's all O.J., all the time. The cotton-candy-only diet is not a good thing.
But it's hardly an either-or situation. The Sunday, September 3, front page of the New York Times is a case in point.
That page showcases, with color art, a feature on the problems that ensue when someone dancing the New York-style mambo (which, as everyone knows, involves dancing on "2") encounters a partner who dances on "1." It was an engaging look at the burgeoning salsa craze, a nice slice of life as it's lived today.
But weighty matters were hardly ignored. The page also contained stories about missile shields, school principals (there's a shortage) and globalization, not to mention two pieces on the presidential campaign.
So, no, I don't think the republic was endangered by the "Survivor" surfeit.
Just don't make me read any stories about "Survivor II."

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