Q&A / A conversation with Amir Hetsroni
An expert on mass communications and the editor of a new collection of articles on the global phenomenon of reality TV
Amir Hetsroni, an associate professor of communications at Ariel University Center in the West Bank, is the editor of "Reality Television: Merging the Global and the Local" (Nova Publishers, 295 pages, $145, in English ), a new volume of essays by scholars from around the world who examine the impact of reality TV on their respective cultures. Hetsroni, 42, is critical of what he sees as a general tendency among academics and television critics to look down on reality shows and their audiences, and applauds the fact that many shows draw both participants and viewers from outlying areas and the working classes.
In his own essay in the collection, "The Praise and the Critique of a Nasty Format," Hetsroni surveys critical responses from the years 2005-2008 to the wave of reality shows then broadcast in Israel, and notes the principal arguments made against the genre. Though he doesn't take a position in the book, Hetsroni is open-minded about reality TV, clearly enjoys a number of shows, and has himself participated in one successful local program, as a commentator.
Other essayists represented in the volume include the Bulgarian scholar Maria Raicheva-Stover, who looks at the success of "Big Brother" in her country, where, until not long ago, the term "big brother" was understood quite differently; two Slovenian scholars, Zala Volcic and Mark Andrejevic, who examine the way a series in their country called "The Farm" "tapped into a deep vein of rural nostalgia for Slovene folk culture," and actually played a role in helping this former Yugoslav republic coalesce a new national identity; and Oren Livio, an Israeli who compares four different variations of the "Idol" singing competition, from its origin in Britain to versions in the United States, Canada and Israel. Hetsroni spoke with Haaretz about reality TV by phone from his home in Carmei Yosef.
How would you define a "reality show"?
People in both the academic community and in the industry have been struggling with a definition for two decades. In the most general sense, you can say it's an unscripted program that is not a documentary. But it also entails an interfering or intrusive format, as opposed to a documentary where the director is like a fly on the wall.
The wrong definition is to say that it's a show with prizes. There are some reality shows that don't have prizes. And in fact, game shows have been giving away prizes since the 1950s. And even when there is a prize, that's not always the most important element. "Kokhav Nolad" ["A Star is Born"], for example, offers the winner an opportunity to record an album in a professional studio, but of course the most important prize is the exposure. What's unique about reality shows is that the result is not necessarily known at the beginning. Rather, it's orchestrated by the producers. Take a show like "Big Brother," which may at times look like a documentary. But eventually, it is led in a very specific direction by the person behind the show, and that person is not one of the residents of the house.
How did you arrive at this topic?
I earned my doctorate in communications at the Hebrew University in 1999. Most of my work is about sex and violence on TV and in advertising. I came to reality TV as a media commentator. I was asked to comment on it for Ynet and Maariv when the format became prominent in the mid-noughties, and I was the expert in residence at "Big Brother" for one season. I was asked to join as a resident several times. They even offered me a lot of money, but I said no quite distinctly.
Why did you say no?
Residing in the "Big Brother" house is like being a prisoner with not exceptionally smart and fairly noisy prison mates. My tariff for being imprisoned under such conditions is at least several million a day.
In the book, I wanted to give expression to voices not often heard in the discussion about reality TV. Most academic discussion about it adopts a negative, Marxist perspective that totally objects to the idea that something good can come out of this entertainment format. I was thinking - and have put it in writing several times - that reality is no worse than a lot of the crap that's been appearing on our screens for ages under the rubric of "elite drama." To say that it is by definition bad TV, as compared with some sitcoms, for example, is an exaggeration.
￼ Isn't that a somewhat backhanded compliment? Can you say something more positive about it as a genre?
First, reality shocked a stagnating TV industry. Shocking is sometimes a good thing. I think most music critics would agree that even if most punk musicians in the late '70s were not great, what they did for rock music in general was eventually good. If you look at the long string of television dramas aired here between 2002 and 2006, you can't remember any of them - that's because they weren't very good. They were mostly about young people in Tel Aviv trying to make sense of things and make lives for themselves.
Reality gave expression to people from the periphery - not all the shows were made by graduates of Beit Zvi or Tel Aviv University's film department, and they weren't all educated according to the methods of Stanislavsky. So coming out with a new format shows the industry that there are other options.
Even if I wouldn't say that "Kokhav Nolad" is a work of genius, the idea that something so simple can attract viewers shows the industry that maybe they weren't going in the right direction. It also brought to the fore some new faces and talents.
Another good thing is that it gives viewers a more challenging job. You will probably laugh and say, "What's so tough about sending an SMS to vote for a contestant?" But it's harder than being a couch potato. And the final outcome is that when you're watching reality TV, you take part in the program's development.
Will reality TV eventually die out?
That's a tough question. Reality adopted elements from several preexisting formats and put them together. It took competition from game shows, and some narrative elements from documentaries. The story line of several shows, in which someone is brought to fame from nowhere, is itself taken from Hollywood's golden age of dramas. I think we can expect to see it continue to borrow from other genres - maybe sports.
Given all of that, reality in some way will stay, but not necessarily in the same dress that it wears today. It's also worth bearing in mind that the simplest reality formats have been with us for ages. There were talent shows on TV in the 1950s, and those in turn were televised versions of something that took place at county fairs, etc. How is "Kokhav Nolad" different from Festival Hazemer [the Israeli song festival], which went on here from 1950s until 1980?
Will the entertainment threshold continue to escalate? Will we see contestants being killed or donating a kidney on screen?
You are referring to what academics call the "creeping cycle of desensitization." Shows are definitely becoming edgier, more revealing, more exciting. People are doing things in public that we weren't used to seeing in public. I think the trend will probably continue. The tougher question is whether it is good or bad. Who says that if two people fall in love, that exposing their romance in public is setting a "bad example"? When it happened on "Connected," the characters were brutally criticized [Hetsroni is referring to the case of Ran Sarig, who was married, and Dana Spector, participants on the first and second seasons of the Israel show "Connected," who fell in love on-screen, leading Sarig to leave his wife]. But maybe it's actually a good example to see people being true to their feelings.
I can give you another show that was heavily criticized, which combined reality with game show. In the United States it was called "The Moment of Truth," and on Channel 2 here it was called "Polygraph," hosted by Gadi Sukenik in 2008. A contestant would be asked several dozen questions and then brought to the studio and hooked up to a lie detector, and would have to answer the same questions again, in front of his family and friends. Questions like, have you ever cheated on your husband, or is it true that you eat dog food at night.
I was one of the few who spoke positively about the show, which was canceled after one season. It offered a lively treatment of an investigation room at a police station. Is that really worse than some of the crappy dramas we've seen lately?
In terms of the proportion of reality TV shows, and the percentage that are homegrown, how does Israel stack up against other countries?
￼Our media industry is so heavily regulated that you can't talk about the proportion as being high or low. The regulator, the Second Television Authority, dictates the number of hours reality shows can be broadcast, so you can't compare us to rest of the world.
I would dare to estimate that in an unregulated surrounding, we would have seen more reality programs. If it seems like we have more than we actually do, it's because usually they're broadcast during prime time, because they are so expensive to produce.
￼ Which Israeli shows do you especially like?
Well, I don't like "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race," all of these physical shows. I did like "Big Brother" when it was more honest - the first season, when people didn't know what they were walking into. I like "Beauty and the Geek." It's a cheap trick, I admit, but it's plain fun and well-produced, tongue-in-cheek and cute.
One show that hasn't been made, but is talked about in corridors [of the broadcasters] is sometimes called "The Farm" or "The Nation," and would be a kind of Zionist reality program, taking place on an authentic farm in pre-state Palestine, though based on a similar show developed by [European producer] Endemol. If they tried to recreate the days of the First or Second Aliya, it could be a fun and interesting view of Zionism. There is a commercially successful trend in newly created states to produce reality shows that contribute to nation-building ethos.
In my book, two Slovenian scholars, Zala Volcic and Mark Andrejevic, demonstrate how their local version of "The Farm" was utilized to invent the myth of an "authentic" Slovenian culture that supposedly existed in previous centuries. Bear in mind that Slovenia was an independent state no sooner than the early 1990s and was for ages part of the larger Slavic federation or an Austrian empire. They needed ancient myths that they never had and used this show to create them vividly.
David B. Green