The Allurement of Extreme TV: What You May Not Know

blogimage2In our digital era, the chicken and egg question is: Do today’s media mirror the world around us or, conversely, is it our uses of the digital world that shape contemporary culture? I believe it is reasonable to suggest that the answer is both/and, because of the ubiquitous presence of media in our lives and our potentially continuous choices of engagement.

How many people actually feel empowered versus feeling powerless and in the grips of something beyond our control? I raise a more provocative question: Are there some folks who feel empowered and in control yet who, regrettably, are kidding themselves? I speak to the growing popularity of reality TV and, more specifically, extreme TV.

In my latest quest, to find deeper insights about the human fascination with the extreme, top ranking Google pages on such topics mostly showed superficial affirmations about this phenomenon as a given, without questioning it. To be fair, a couple of articles did suggest that some soul searching is needed about the popularity of extreme TV.

As for YouTube videos about effects on the brain, they mostly focused on snippets of information accompanied by commercial interests, for example, to entice viewers to learn how to train the brain. Other popular videos focused on conspiracy theories about how television was invented to dumb us down, intentionally.

What needs serious reflection, regardless, is how popular media affect us, in ways that go beyond our conscious awareness. Ergo, this blog post peels back the layers of what we think we know to a glimpse into our unconscious where a fuller truth resides.

To begin, for several decades, it is no conspiratorial secret – among folks who investigate the marketing world – that subliminal messages have been an intentional component of advertising, probably for as long as advertising has existed.

As for television, it could be said to be the handmaiden of post-WWII capitalism in its consummate role as a communications tool to encourage us (who have access to TV) to desire and acquire all the worldly goods that a free market economy can offer.

The subsequent sea changes of communications technology arrived with the computer and internet, followed by the myriad of social media with which we, once again, seem to be more enchanted than not.

There is a reason why the influence of television is greater than, and radically different from, feature movies. It is similar to why and how multiple, quick-changing images on a computer screen differ in the impact upon us psychologically from long form documentary films.

That distinction is why veteran documentary filmmakers experienced in long form storytelling advocate for the continuing production of feature film stories, and lobby against the major reduction of television time slots available in recent years for documentaries. Broadcasters increasingly have replaced them with reality TV and a growing number of extreme TV program series.

Entertainment versus education always has been the yin-yang tension of television programming, no different from other media in regard to the tensions between commerce and communicating knowledge that is helpful rather than cause harm.

So, that tension is not new. What is new, however, is that today even documentary filmmakers are being pressured by broadcasters to create film stories not just with an emphasis on exaggerated drama but, furthermore, to construct engaging stories with the ultimate, conscious goal to make profits for TV channels.

That profit-driven intention never has been the primary motivation nor ethos behind the making of documentary films. The purpose of this form of storytelling – at its best – has been to bear witness to, and document, the human condition and the world. In doing so, such stories thereby elevate human consciousness by compelling audiences to reflect upon and do what is needed to co-create a better quality of life for the larger good.

Veteran doc filmmaker Peter Lee-Wright, in his book The Documentary Handbook (2009), speaks to the inner conflict today by his peers who try to negotiate a morally questionable marketplace where: “…the thirst for instant reaction and first-hand experience has created a market for the ill-considered.” One reviewer, Wes Skolits in 2010, paraphrases Lee-Wright’s perspective as follows:

“The easy accessibility of these multiple filmic forms has incurred rampant abuse by the public (and by the news stations) in not seriously considering the purposes behind the filmic act, nor their ramifications… [T]here is increasing focus on the audiences’ desires simpliciter to the exclusion of quality programming. The proliferation of voices and evolution of documentary media reflects a change from an overly moralistic society to one that is increasingly “commercial, hedonistic, and relativistic”; and this ought to be abandoned.”

Those are fighting words. As a filmmaking member of a documentary organization in Canada, I can tell you that the debates about how to sustain a documentary industry, threatened in this economy, and also how to keep our integrity, confronted with the aforementioned TV priorities offered today, are endless and passionate.

In other words, previously, if and when some doc filmmakers chose to expose the worst human behaviours, the ethical intention was to wake up fellow human beings and provoke us to challenge whatever caused harm. Now, rather than elevate human consciousness, more doc filmmakers are feeling pressured to participate in creating TV fodder that reduces humanity to its lowest common denominator.

The short answer to why reality TV now is so prevalent and, more so, extreme TV, is simple. The broadcasters (and producers sometimes) are making huge revenues, and so are the advertisers. Constructed reality is much cheaper to produce than scripted drama and comedy, and also documentaries, because they get high audience ratings from the younger generations of targeted viewers.

To maintain a livelihood, some filmmakers and crew do agree, often reluctantly, to work on shows for reality TV. I said above that such shows earn huge revenues, but for whom is one question, and at what human cost is another?

The Los Angeles Times wrote a scathing article online January 6, 2013, to expose tight budgets, lack of insurance, lack of trained safety personnel and, worse, last-minute production decisions to push cast and crew into potentially life-threatening situations, just to create more extreme drama and attract more viewers for more $ – but not necessarily $ that the cast or crew ever see. Such exploitative work conditions are outrageous. Do we even hear about all the injuries and, sometimes, loss of life, and the true reasons why?

Another ethical issue, cited in various online articles as I mentioned above, is the purpose for which the characters are selected for reality TV. Their life circumstances are grossly manipulated, foremost for the entertainment value which, again of course, means money, and human dignity is shredded.

A further ethical issue is the impact on children. According to education writer Anne Weinstein, children today still believe that what they see on reality TV is real-life, not `constructed reality’.”

Weinstein advocates for better media literacy. What is shocking to me (after more than 25 years facilitating workshops and writing about media literacy) is that it still is not widespread as standard school curricula, to develop critical thinking as a life skill.

Also frustrating (because I have trained in, and studied, psychology) is to see, in a USA Today College article, comments by Dr. Peter Christenson, a professor of rhetoric and media studies. He argues that the medium of reality TV is still new and not enough comprehensive studies yet exist to draw `cause and effect’ types of conclusions.

Christenson’s statement illustrates to me one example of the serious limitations of relying on empirical science. What is needed, instead, is holistic science accompanied by holistic interventions, to name, heal and transform, the root system of North American society.

We are a society, systemically and collectively, in denial of what I call `soul-woundedness’. The clearly visible symptoms of this affliction are our addictions, that cover a wide range of compulsive behaviours. Chemical dependencies are only the tip of the iceberg.

The first step of healing is a willingness to name the affliction, a spreading affliction planting its seeds throughout a globalized world.

Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor” is the single online article that I could find directly identifying “television addiction,” in Scientific American, dated February 23, 2002. Yes, its findings were gathered more than ten years ago. Nevertheless, the research in it can be seen as pertinent to reality TV since then, as well as the allurement of extreme TV.

The opening statement, by co-authors Robert Kubley and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, speaks volumes: “Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the struggle for survival is how easily organisms can be harmed by that which they desire.” Then, they point to how such “excessive cravings” play out in the brain of the human being.

For another provocative statement reads: “Most of the criteria of substance dependence can apply to people who watch a lot of TV.” The co-authors cite behavioural and brain wave studies that indicate relaxation and passivity while watching TV. But, among the more chronic viewers, not only did they express feeling less rewarded by extended viewing, yet also had difficulty to stop this prolonged habit partly because of the experience of heightened stress and restlessness when the screen went blank.

The co-authors suggest that the TV attraction “springs from our biological `orienting response’.” You can read their more detailed description in this revelatory Scientific American article. In it, the deeper, unconscious, addictive drive in humans is explained as being fed by the form as much as by the content of television.

For example, the co-authors credit two previous researchers, Byron Reeves and Esther Thorson who, as far back as 1986, did research to conclude that it was “the simple formal features of television – cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises – [that] activate the orienting response, thereby keeping attention on the screen.”

Therefore, I raise the question, cannot those findings be extrapolated to the increasing popularity of extreme TV? What is dangerous, psychologically, is not simply the time invested in TV viewing yet, moreover, as Kubley and Csikszentmihalyi suggested: “For growing numbers of people, the life they lead online may often seem more important, more immediate and more intense than the life they lead face-to-face.”

What is so painfully clear – painful because apparently so many people are oblivious to it – is the need to connect the dots between: the unconscious allurement of extreme TV; addiction to immediate and continuing stimulation; and shortened attention span, to end up at the undeniably addictive uses of social media, most particularly among younger generations.

The other significant resource online – that helps us understand yet also see the possibility how to transcend addiction – is the beautiful, soulful, healing perspective of Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Mate, accessible on several YouTube videos. I also recommend his books.

Watch, for example, one of his TED Talks titled “The Power of Addiction and the Addiction of Power,” with a message to awaken the healing power of our compassion and caring, because each of us can choose to elevate our consciousness closer to who we can be.

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3 Responses to The Allurement of Extreme TV: What You May Not Know

  1. Geoff Bowie says:

    I have a common concern about the effects on the audience of watching the form of commercial television. this is something dubbed the Monoform by radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins.

    I can also relate to the ethical dilemmas of being a documentary filmmaker in this time. This problem arose for me quite a while ago and increased when I made a documentary about the making of Peter Watkins last film, an almost 6 hour epic about the Paris Commune uprising of 1871. My film is called The Universal Clock: the Resistance of Peter Watkins. It was made for the NFB

  2. Geoff Bowie says:

    Peter Watkins website if you are interested is

    Of course, my ongoing problem is I don’t really have any sense of how to resist this trend. I still make 1 hour tv documentaries and I’ve only seen the conditions grow worse even in this medium. The control is more and more strictly held by the broadcast executives who commission the film. The notion of a director/artist controlling their film is a dead concept.


    • Geoff, I looked up Peter Watkins’ website and his insights about the media are very important to read and excellent material for media literacy.
      I certainly respect your work as a filmmaker and recommend people go to your website at to read the film synopsis on The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins, and find out how to purchase a DVD. Best wishes.
      What you say about the broadcasters is true. They give less money yet want more control over the film’s content. Those reasons are why independent filmmakers must raise money from other sources and show films elsewhere.

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