Back when gas prices were really high and the environment was on everybody’s mind, my friend Gary and I used to love to watch WWWF Professional Wrestling on TV. Once each month we would take his mom’s car and drive out to the Nassau Coliseum. We liked to sit in the third-row ring-side, drink beer, smoke cigars and watch our TV wrestling heroes live. It was 1974, we were 16, livin’ large and we thought WWWF was real. Chief Jay Strongbow, André The Giant, the insane Ivan Koloff and champion of champions, Bruno Sammartino all wrestled while we drank and puffed away. It was really fun.
About six months into our ritual, we were lucky enough to sit in the first row — close enough for them to drip sweat on us. At the most climactic moment in WWWF history, we lost our childhood. Bruno Sammartino had cornered his opponent and was about to decimate him when we both distinctly heard Bruno say, “ready…move.” The opponent jumped out of the way as Bruno grabbed the corner post in a most dramatic way.
We were crushed. Gary said to me, “…did you hear that?” I looked up, crestfallen — truly, I’ve never recovered from the trauma.
Now, I’m recounting the exploits of two underage hard-drinking, hard-smoking suburban misfits to make a point — TV is fake. Not just reality TV, all TV.
Unless the subject is emergent news with live cameras at the scene, video images are always manipulated to look better. Remember, you live in a 3D world and television is 2D. Real world depth perception, sense of color, contrast and movement are all vastly different than their video counterparts. So, since the beginnings of the medium, producers have worked hard to make everything look as good as it possibly can within the constructs of the story they are trying to tell. This goes for audio as well.
If you live in the United States, you have watched approximately 30,000 hours of television by the time you are 18 years old. This factoid is important when you consider that the “conventions of television,” our willingness to suspend disbelief for our own enjoyment of the medium, are learned behaviors. People unfamiliar with television usually walk behind the box to see how the people got in there and wonder why they are so small. Over the course of our childhood, we have come to accept the images on TV as “real” and sometimes we forget what is really “real” and what is fake “real.”
This is not as much of a technical problem as it is a sociological one. The driving force behind our perception of reality is context. A news story, in a branded news environment, being broadcast from a trusted source is probably going to be really “real.” That’s the product they are known for and you tune into your favorite news source because you enjoy the context in which they present the news.
The same holds true for your entertainment. Very often, context plays a major role in your perception of quality or personal relevance. If something is brought to you by a trusted source, you tend to give it more of your attention than something that you just come across. And, if something is presented in a certain context, a skilled producer can make an otherwise absurd visual seem vividly real.
Which brings me to my most recent traumatic television realization to date: Bear Grylls is fake. Ouch! This one really hurts. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bear, he is the star of a “fake” reality series entitled, Man vs. Wild that airs on Discovery. Each week they literally drop Mr. Grylls into a very inhospitable place and he is supposed to spend up to five days surviving with only a knife, water bottle, a piece of flint, the clothes on his back and his wits.
The worst part about the show being a “show” is that up front they tell you that this guy is the real-deal. He’s been in the Special Forces, climbed Mt. Everest, and survived all kinds of untoward stuff. He climbs walls, trees, eats living frogs, and drinks his own urine — no matter how you think about him; he’s one tough guy.
The show rocked. Why? Partly because it is one of the few shows I could watch with my teenaged sons. We loved the show and with the help of our DVR it was a great way to cap off Sunday night after Entourage. That was then. Now, we have learned that some of the survival stunts were, in fact, stunts. Bear has had some help building stuff, stayed in a hotel when he was supposed to be out in the wilderness freezing his ass off, and brought in some domesticated horses as props, capturing one as if it were a wild horse. What else have they faked? Well, the point is, they have faked all of it. But we, the audience, had suspended our disbelief so that we could enjoy the show.
Now, we can’t enjoy the show. No matter what they do to it. We now know that this is just some guy who can climb really well, who doesn’t mind eating bugs, frogs and freshly killed uncooked things, running around with a camera crew. Bummer.
It just won’t be possible to believe that with his crew around and a hotel nearby that he will truly have to drink his own urine to stay alive. Not that this particular act makes remarkable television, but you have to admit it’s not something you see everyday. Once you remove the “life or death” context from the show, it’s really much less watchable. I guess Discovery Channel has just heard Bear say to his fans, “ready…move.”