For several days now, I've been wondering if there's any difference between watching sports and watching reality shows. If watching The Voice is any different from watching basketball's State Cup semifinal, or if Survivor is a game, just as Monday's Tel Aviv soccer derby is a game. My view for the past few years has been that there is an essential difference, that sport is far more worthy than any of these synthetically produced shows that come and go every few years.
I have a reason to ponder this question, due to a certain comparison that was born in what seems to me a dangerous atmosphere. This equation pits sport and reality shows as equal culinary-cultural phenomena, an equation that stems from the warm bosom of classical bourgeois couples that put the children to sleep and then dedicate themselves to the TV. The purpose of the equation is wisely offset the genre-related arguments that might pop up, such as "you watch sports all day long!" or "you watch reality shows all the time!"
What troubled me was that the need to balance a boring, generic, bourgeoisie framework actually bestowed equal value to two obviously different phenomena. That due to a basic functional need – household peace – two completely different items are put in the same basket; two items that cannot be more different. In short, I was insulted in the name of sport.
The basis of the comparison is two traps: the sense of competition, and the reaction effect. As to the competition, the matter is quite clear: In principle, these are two competitive spectacles with winners and loser, and abilities measured in real time. The reaction effect is also misleading: When a soccer game is screened, one sees a person passively sitting on a sofa with an active reaction every so often – to goals, penalties, red cards, the final whistle, etc. The same behavior applies to one watching a reality show: mostly passive, with several active peaks – "what an amazing solo!" or "did you see that quiche? Amazing!"
The similarity isn't coincidental. In fact, reality shows gained their popularity by adopting the competitive element from sports, and using it in other fields, such as cooking or singing. Reality is more successful than sports in terms of rating percentages, since it distilled the competitive element, upgraded it (by mentors and direct duels) and supposedly added a further human perspective – almost every participant has a sad story that is supposed to draw 4.7 tears per viewer.
Reality creators understood something basic by watching sports: that between the realm of the frightening truth (news) and the realm of the utopian-infantile world (Lego blocks), one can find a hazy in-between realm (a game) that succeeds in combining the right balance between truth and utopia, and therefore leads to non-hazardous addiction.
Reality show creators can be commended for the way they brewed up all the ingredients into a TV format. They succeeded in conveying the sense of game/reality which is the basis of sports, but speeded up the tempo, cut out the dull moments and added melodramatic background stories. The high ratings fed the monster: Huge sums were invested in reality shows, increasing the production value with exquisite and aesthetic scenery, transforming the shows to almost flawless. Millions became addicted.
Still, reality shows are not a sport. Ratings, success, addiction, buzz – it's all true. But reality shows are exactly that: a synthetically produced brew of real elements, creating a TV fantasy. And that is exactly what makes reality shows a passing fad, especially when compared to sports. Reality shows do not exist beyond TV; their existence depends on TV. If a meteor hits the planet and humanity is destroyed nothing of all that will remain.
Sport, in comparison, does exist in reality: a kid kicking a rag ball (soccer), a girl throwing a small ball into a hoop (basketball), or two kids chasing each other (running). Sports broadcasts are simply a technological way to capture these occurrences. Even if television didn't exist, Hapoel Tel Aviv would play Maccabi Tel Aviv in the derby. The budgets may be smaller or the quality lower, but the game itself will still exist, because it has an inherent value.
Despite what they say in the United States, sports aren’t a "TV product." Sports aren't a product at all. Sports are a way of life, and at the highest levels make excellent viewing on an appliance known as a television set. Every time a sport agrees to change in order to suit television needs, it harms itself and edges closer to reality shows. That is why watching NBA games is so difficult – and that applies to football as well. These games have been synthetically processed to suit television's needs.
At present, watching these sports necessitates endless commercial breaks, which cause the viewing experience to be excruciating. In a nutshell, one only needs to watch the WWE, the staged 'wrestling' tournaments, to understand the difference between sport and reality shows, since the WWE jettisons the authentic basis of sport, transforming it into a competitive soap opera.
The difference between reality shows and sports is the difference between what is produced in order to sell, and what is produced because it serves a need. It is somewhat similar to the difference between a vegetable and a snack. The latter may taste better, but the former is real, and therefore healthier – always.