Death and Reality TV: Has Reality Gotten Too Real?
- April 3rd, 2013
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This week, MTV is dealing with the fall-out from the death of one of their reality stars. Shain Gandee, a castmember of the Jersey Shore in Appalachia show Buckwild, and two companions died of accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning while going late-night off-roading—a pastime that Shain was often shown enjoying on the show.
The death of the reality star has some questioning the future of the show, which had begun filming its second season. But a larger question could also be asked about the future of reality TV at large: has the line been crossed where the fun antics that once drew young viewers in, have too heavy a consequence to keep them watching? Did everything just get a little too real?
Young viewers want reality TV that lifts them up, or makes them feel better about themselves through the magic of schadenfreude. But when the scale tips too far in the side of morose, the fun of watching comes to a screeching halt. Reality TV holds a unique place in entertainment for viewers, who love to see “real” people with over-the-top drama, but are wary of being too reminded of the stresses or sadnesses of their own lives while watching. It’s possible that Gen Y viewers could turn away from the genre of reality as it exists now if it continues to showcase the things in life they’d just rather not see.
Reality TV charts new territory when it comes to where the boundaries between public and private lie. Though the shows might have a staff of writers, these are real people being featured, so hiding their flaws and tragedies is not a possibility. This is not the first death of a reality star that has been glaringly played out in the public spotlight. Bravo drew criticism for continuing with the second season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills after the death of Russell Armstrong, the husband of one of its stars who had received ample camera time. Interestingly, Bravo—a network that has built their success on reality programming—just revealed that they are introducing original scripted programming into their lineup. A development worthy-of-note when considering the future of the genre, and one that makes us wonder if other networks will also begin leaning towards content that is easier to control.
It’s possible we have been witnessing the decline of reality TV as we’ve known it for some time already. Though the first season of Buckwild performed well enough to get renewed, it never reached the dizzying heights of its predecessor, The Jersey Shore. The final season of Jersey Shore also saw a decline in viewers. Though many factors contribute to a show's ratings over time, it is possible that watching the show’s stars deal with the consequences (rehab, repeated arrests) of what at once felt like young foolish fun was not as alluring to Gen Y consumers.
It remains to be seen whether MTV will continue with production on Buckwild as Bravo did following the death in Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but the tide may be slowly turning for the unscripted TV we have come to know. Though the genre will not disappear, we may see at least a temporary pullback from the kinds of hot-mess stories and personalities that have made reality what it is today.