Many people are worriedly following the fate of the workers at the Maariv newspaper. According to the rumors, some 400 of the fired workers will be reinstated. Until then all 2,000 are waiting on an "island of hope," like participants in some huge, cruel reality show. Maybe it's not a show.
One of the main reasons for the popularity of reality shows like "Survivor" is the fact that they reflect the helplessness of the "simple man" against the tremendous forces that shape his life, including large employers.
Job insecurity is one of the greatest conceptual changes that we citizens are experiencing in the past decade. Few of us can allow ourselves to depend on our workplace as a central component of our identity. The need to hold on to that workplace sometimes demands guile, perseverance, self-sacrifice and moral compromise. But even if we employ all of these there's no guarantee that we will hang on. It's not easy to digest this fact, and there do not appear to be sufficient models to help us process this fundamental change in our lives.
Surprisingly, various reality show competitions offer a type of model that serves as a public simulation of this battle for survival. When we watch "Survivor" we see people fighting for their place in a world replete with uncertainty, disloyalty and arbitrariness. When we identify with one of the competitors we identify with someone who is undergoing difficult experiences of rejection and loss. It may be happening on an island, but we see something that is both painful and familiar. We look at them and we see ourselves.
This is not the widely accepted explanation for the popularity of reality television. The genre is conventionally seen as providing viewers with the type of enjoyment that was favored by citizens of ancient Rome when they watched a gladiator fight for his life in the ring. But in order to understand the genre's success you don't have to look as far as Rome, but simply to compare it with its predecessor as the most popular type of television show - the sitcom.
According to the basic rules of a sitcom, no matter what happens during a particular episode, the following episode begins precisely at the same point where the previous one began. The characters in "Friends" and "Dharma and Greg," for example, turn up at the beginning of every episode smiling and smug, ready to punch in their card - just like employees turning up for a new work day, confident that this day will be like the previous one, and tomorrow will be like today.
By providing a stable, unchanging exterior building, the sitcom enabled the viewing public to process issues that were, at the time, burning, such as changes in the traditional family structure, the entry of homosexuals and lesbians into the mainstream and extension of the age of adolescence into the 20s. The sitcom's charm as a format lies in its stability. But a format in which heroes live in a world of abundance, in which everyone has enough of everything, cannot help us relieve the substantial tension we are experiencing during a period of global economic crisis and a brutal battle for survival. Reality show competitions partially answer that need.
One of the fired Maariv workers expressed succinctly his amazement at being thrown from the world of "Friends" to the world of "Survivor" when he said: "I've been at the paper since I was 26 and in a few months I'll be 60. Who will want me now?"
And we, who have seen plenty of dismissed people talking to the camera, would like to vote for him via a text message - but we know how the competition works.