Media Blog

Reality TV Is Designed to Profit off of ‘Cultural Tension’

This is a great post from the Los Angels Times’ “Show Tracker” blog on how reality TV will inevitably lead to situations similar to what happened with Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty. An excerpt:

Once again, TV finds itself in another cultural hot zone. The “Duck Dynasty” situation recalls last summer’s uproar over celebrity chef Paula Deen, who lost her Food Network gig and many sponsorship deals after she admitted she had “of course” used a racial epithet in the past.

TLC pulled an episode of “Cake Boss” in 2012 after “Cousin Anthony” mocked a transgender guest. Similar flare-ups damaged the careers of radio host Don Imus, Oscar winner Mel Gibson and actor Isaiah Washington after they were accused of using racially insensitive or homophobic speech.

These cases reflect larger rifts in American life — call it a split between progressives and traditionalist values.

But the particular problem for the TV industry is that it’s trying to profit off the same cultural tensions it’s exploiting. That inevitably leads to problems such as the current one engulfing “Duck Dynasty.”

The reality programming trend in recent years has made stars out of everyone from bakers to pawnbrokers to catfish-wranglers. That these “authentic” people have opinions and values that don’t always jibe with those of the media elite in New York and Los Angeles isn’t necessarily surprising.

But it means that the executives and PR handlers have had to get very good at backpedaling away from uncomfortable realities. That’s most likely what is happening now on “Duck Dynasty.”

“A&E has been very careful in editing and presenting this family, being careful not to show any potential controversial views,” said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “But they can’t control what they say outside of the show.”

“Channels like A&E program ‘regular’ people mostly to make curiosities out of them,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “The programmers want to manage every aspect of their ‘reality’ commodities, but that isn’t really possible.

“If A&E wants the Robertsons to make money for the channel by being authentic, then at some point A&E has to accept that reality stars will be real human beings,” McCall added. “If A&E didn’t like the Robertsons as they are, then why did they give them a weekly platform?”

That’s the question A&E will have to answer as nothing Robertson said in the GQ interview is different than anything they haven’t heard — or edited out of broadcasts — before.