Online Exclusive: America’s obsession with reality TV

“I don’t really watch sports. Can we watch some real TV?” I heard a friend say the other day. I am sure this wasn’t the first time this has been said, especially between couples of all ages and interests. That being said, I happen to have been struck by this particular incident. “Real” TV? What did she mean? I assumed she meant a “Seinfeld” rerun on TBS, or a “Housewives of Somewhereville,” and not the NBA playoff game I was watching, but as I thought about it, I couldn’t help but be confused and even intrigued by her statement. If that was “real” TV, what in the world was I watching? I understand people who say sports “aren’t for everyone,” but as a fan of TV, as many of you reading this column are, I believe broadcast sports are some of the most “real” and quality TV that anyone can enjoy.

It is no surprise how obsessed our culture is with so-called “reality” television. Although I personally hate the moniker, whichever MTV executive that stumbled upon the term and first started using it is most likely swimming in a comically large “Scrooge McDuck” pile of money. It’s incredible how we obsess over which bride “The Bachelor” will choose, we rush home to watch pseudo-rednecks squander their fortunes between occasionally producing duck-calls, we watch absolute jerks outbid one another for storage lockers full of other people’s junk, and the whole country might as well collapse while America elects not a president but a mildly talented singer as the next American Idol. Reality TV is one of the fastest growing facets of the industry and shows no sign of stopping, but its viewership is still beaten by one genre of programming, namely sports. Why do I think this is the case? Because reality programming is, at its core, a cheap imitation of sports. The country literally shuts down to watch the Super Bowl each year. They say, “art imitates life,” and truthfully reality shows are in almost every way, an imitation of sports in an attempt to garner the same passion from fans and hopefully (but usually not) the same Nielsen ratings.

In the same vein, even our most beloved scripted dramas and comedies all can be seen in some way or another as attempting to recreate what sports achieve naturally. “Bench players” that come in for an episode or two and make a difference when needed end up disappearing just as quickly as they came. Executive producers that must decide how and when to respond to criticism directly parallel head coaches that do the same day in and day out. Twist endings imitate unexpected comebacks and seek to surprise and delight viewers as much as “hail mary” catches and “buzzer beaters,” but usually fall short as they “seem too unlikely” or “too scripted,” even though if the same things were to happen during an ESPN broadcast we would have no choice but to love every second of it.

Furthermore, for the TV fans that love to engulf themselves in the world of their shows, “nerd out” over back stories, plot holes and minute details never noticed by casual viewers, don’t worry: there are others like you, and they are called sports fans. If you know every character relation and quote through all five seasons of “The Wire,” what makes that different from knowing batting averages, QB ratings or how many triple-doubles a player has? Love reading backstories, fanfiction and watching behind the scenes footage? Every player has a backstory and, unlike “Star Trek” episodes, it’s being refreshed and updated every day.

All my excitement aside, I understand the argument that professional sports can be just as fake as TV, too. Egos of athletes can be just as large, inflated and superficial as the egos of actors and characters on the cheesiest of scripted shows, but at the end of the day broadcast sports still base themselves in more reality and “truth” than even the most intense reality show. Regardless of how much knowledge we have or how one-sided the odds are, we still can never know what the outcome will be. This fact makes broadcast sports one of the last truly “live” parts of a medium which was initially almost entirely live and, in my opinion, incredibly more exciting (possibly a little more dangerous) and in turn more powerful.

On the whole, to anyone reading this who would say or has ever said, “I’m not a sports person,” but who still loves TV half as much as I do, I challenge you to find some aspect of sports to enjoy so that you aren’t missing out. I don’t care if you pick a team because of their jersey colors, a player because of his drama off the court or even a sport because you are fascinated by its stats. If you enjoy TV (and who really doesn’t?), then you are a sports person; I guarantee it. You may just not have found the aspect of the sports world that corresponds to what you get out of “real” TV, but trust me, it’s there, and once you find it you’ll be glad you did.