Do shows create understanding or exploit subjects?
As shows like “Deadliest Catch” and “Intervention” take us further into the dangers of people working risky jobs or facing life-threatening situations, reality television faces an ever-present question about its genre.
Do these shows create understanding, or do they validate their critics by exploiting extreme environments in a ratings quest?
“It can be both at the same time,” says Susan Murray, an associate professor of culture and communication at New York U. “We get to know things we didn’t know, but potential loss could happen at any time, and that’s a huge hook for an audience or someone trying to sell a show.”
While reality TV is sometimes censured for sensationalizing its subjects, those actually being filmed defend how their lives are presented onscreen.
“This is who we are, and this is what we do,” says Sig Hansen, captain of the crew of the Northwestern, which pursues crab on “Deadliest Catch,” an Emmy nominee for nonfiction series and three other categories. “What we do is dangerous, and I’ve lost friends, and I’ve been in situations that weren’t safe at all, and I think it helps people understand us better if they really see the risks.”
Some believe the lure is a function of contemporary life.
“We’re all living in our cubicles these days and see these guys living the equivalent of the modern Western,” says Jane Root, president of Discovery Channel. “You look at their lives and you wonder if you’re tough enough and if you could do what they do.”
Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs” (a nominee for cinematography for nonfiction programming, multicamera) adds that seeing how others work is a benefit.
“We don’t get to see a lot of how the world really works, so we’re fascinated when we see it and then we understand how it works a little better,” says Rowe, also a “Deadliest Catch” narrator. “There’s a lot of poo on ‘Dirty Jobs,’ but someone has to clean it up — and the person who does it deserves respect for doing the work that makes society run.”
Sam Mettler, creator and executive producer of “Intervention” (nominated for cinematography for reality programming) believes some programs can act as a wakeup call for viewers.
“If our show is dramatic, it’s because an addict’s life is drama,” Mettler says. “It’s one thing to talk about addiction, and it’s another thing to actually watch someone shove a needle in their arm. And we’ve had people contact us and tell us they recognized themselves in the show and got help for their problems as a result.”
Jonathan Taplin, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, sees different motivations for viewers. “The audience has always loved looking at someone else suffering,” Taplin says. “They can think that their life isn’t so bad because they’re not strung out or they’re not working on a crab boat. It’s always pretty tawdry.”
In 1994, Jonathan Murray and his late producing partner Mary-Ellis Bunim faced decisions about whether to keep filming when cast member Pedro Zamora became ill with complications due to AIDS on “The Real World.”
“Ultimately we decided to take Pedro’s lead on it, and as long as he could make that decision in an informed way, we were comfortable with it,” Murray says.