Experimental Programming

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print on 1 January 2004

This piece was inspired by an episode of Joe Millionaire in which I watched a young woman–who had, most likely, performed oral sex on a man she believed to be a millionaire–finally learn that he was just a low-paid construction worker, I’ll admit, her face at that split second–the moment between the horrific revelation and her effort to mask her sense of shame–displayed more genuine pathos than a full season of ER_. But this reality program, like so many that went before and after, derived its entertainment value from the humiliation of its real life subjects._

It occurred to me as that reality TV scenarios are set up much in same way as now-forbidden psychology experiments. As luck would have it, a brand-new magazine called Seed had just asked me to write a regular column about how mainstream media perverts or expresses science. So it seemed like the perfect match. I had a meeting with the editor who loved the idea. He pitched it to his publisher, who approved the topic. A month later, I was on my fifth rewrite.

The editor seemed to think each revision would satisfy his publisher’s concerns, but the pieces always came back to me with requests for more science. More Darwin. Something. Ultimately the piece was canned. The publisher, I later leamed, didn’t consider psychology to be a science.

In some ways the magazine industry works like a science experiment or a reality TV show, too. It’s not that editors hope to humiliate their writers. It’s that each assignment is really just the testing of a hypothesis: can this subject/writer combination yield a piece that we’ll want to publish months from now?

That’s why contracts have clauses about “kill fees,” and why magazines assign many more articles than they ever run. Editors might like the piece just fine–but it may not reflect whatever they have told their publisher or what the publisher has told their advertisers about the magazine’s “direction.” In fact, an increase in killed pieces is a good sign that a magazine has lost its way, or is desperately trying to find one.

Still, the net effect can feel as humiliating as if it were intentional. I like to remind myself at such moments that the editors handing down inconsistent, contradictory orders must feel pretty exposed and humiliated, too. They’re the ones whose judgment has been overridden, not me. Plus, I’ve been paid, at least in part, for a piece I’m now free to place elsewhere. They’re stuck at the scene of the crime.

An apparently random sample of average people is divided into two groups: teachers and students. Each student sits on one side of a wall trying to remember a sequence of words, while the teacher sits on the other and is instructed to deliver an electric shock at each wrong answer. The voltage is increased, until the student is writhing around on the floor and screaming in agony. How far will each teacher go? Will he or she deliver a lethal dose? Finally, it will be revealed to the teachers that their “students” are really actors, pretending to be painfully shocked. Won’t they be embarrassed when we all see how easily they can be turned into sadists?

No, this is isn’t one of next season’s reality shows but a real psychology experiment carried out at Yale University in 1961 by Dr. Stanley Milgram. Participants were so anguished over their capacity to inflict pain on demand that the much-publicized saga led to new ethical guidelines for psychological experimentation.

No such restrictions appear to apply to reality television programs, where sustained sadism of this sort can be observed somewhere on the TV dial pretty much any night of the week. Just when it seems as though this genre, if we can call it that, has finally peaked, a new crop of shows even more outrageously cruel or dishonest with its participants than the last appears on the horizon. Welcome to the American media-space, where neither a psychology degree nor an ethics certificate is required for us to look in on psychological terrorism, just for the fun of it.

How did television fall to such new lows? The abuse of traditional storytelling techniques certainly had something to do with it. Ever since Aristotle intuited the “arc” of increasing tension and release that serves as the dramatic spine of any successful play, writers have been honing this formula down to its most crude and utilitarian essence: create characters we like, put them in danger, and give them an easily digestible solution before the end. It’s led to a predictability in mainstream drama and comedy that’s nauseatingly claustrophobic Shows that aren’t assembled through focus groups are written by committee, so that anything resembling nuance or meaning is ironed out before they reach the commercial airwaves.

Any real messages are reserved for the sponsors, who use the very same arc to program product preferences. We don’t call the stuff on television “programming” for nothing. It’s not the schedule or television being programmed; it’s us. So, for about twenty seconds we are brought up the incline plane of increasing stakes–A yucky pimple? Fired from work? Carpet stains? Social anxiety?–and in the last ten seconds all is set right by the sponsor’s product: a new cream, an investment, solvent, or pill. In ancient drama, these quick-fix solutions were called deus ex machina, in which a god would descend from the heavens to save the hero from an otherwise tragic circumstance. Now, a “miracle” product serves that same function. But relentless exposure to these mini-dramas has made television audiences cynical and difficult to please. Having seen the machinery of storytelling at its most manipulative, viewers have grown suspicious of narrative in general.

In such an environment, reality television was initially greeted as liberation from the captive spell of the programmer. By throwing a dozen real people (or, at worst, wannabe actors) in a house, on an island, or in a chateau, and forcing them to come up with their own dialogue, these unscripted shows seemed to release audiences from the predictability of crafted drama and to replace it with the spontaneity–and the stakes–of real life.

Unlike scripted shows, with their preprogrammed agenda, reality programs project an aura of fair play, not unlike live sporting events. This is a competition, the format seems to say, in which only the laws of natural selection will determine who is left on the island at the end of Survivor, or which of the handsome men will win the affections of the single Bachelorette.

As hardened media consumers, of course, we may wonder just how much the producers of such shows actually leave to chance. But in a world where everything from the job market to the stock market to national elections appears to be in some measure fixed, even the illusion of real-life competition on a level playing field can be appealing.

So instead of Darwin’s Galapagos, we get the island of Survivor, where only the strongest and most cunning will make it to the end of their battle against the elements, insects, starvation and each other. And we, the viewing public, get to watch the participants, stripped of the artificial pretenses and conveniences of modern life, duke it out as humans were “meant” to.

On Temptation Island, real couples test the bounds of their socially constructed unions by mixing with buff and buxom singles in bathing suits who have no purpose but to seduce. Participants who actually had sexual intercourse with the tempters might be said to represent the triumph of “untamed” animal instincts over social and cultural “programming.” On this rawest of narrative levels, reality shows seem to be about restoring what audiences conceive of as the natural order. Even the talent show American Idol means to replace–for one lucky winner, anyway–the insiderly, casting-couch-driven culture of the music industry with a fair, democratically chosen pop star.

But while such moments may seem to restore a sense of fair play to television, reality shows are anything but natural selection. They may not be scripted, but any connection between shows like Survivor or Joe Millionaire and real life is purely coincidental. In fact, they are fixed decks, where the preliminary conditions and choice of participants yield a predictable array of possible outcomes.

It’s not just because the eight MTV veejay hopefuls on the Real World wouldn’t normally find themselves living together in a fabulous loft in Seattle. Rather, it’s because these totally crafted productions are based on premises as far removed from reality as TV’s classic situation comedies were. Back in television’s so-called “golden years,” situation comedies were precisely that: situations. A guy’s uncle is a Martian. My horse can talk. Your mother is a car. That’s why they were called situation comedies–because the situation drove the comedy. Today’s sitcoms have no situation to speak of: some friends drink coffee in the same place. An office where, uh, people work. One of our friends is gay.

While today’s sitcoms more closely resemble real life, at least in their situational components, reality TV has staked its future on the absurdity of its setups. Far from focusing on ordinary human behavior, these shows are coming to resemble laboratory experiments (with poor controls) in which conditions are set up in a very particular way so that the most dramatic (read: painful or humiliating) results can emerge.

Like psych experiments, each show has an implicit assumption. What will happen if people are put on an island where they must depend on one another for survival? To forestall the “uninteresting” possibility that they might just learn to get along, what if we require that the group vote one person off every day? That should tip the balance toward down-and-dirty in the “survival of the fittest” maneuvering. What if a group of pretty women compete for the attention of a multimillionaire? Been there. Okay, what if he’s not really a millionaire, but only pretending to be? That brings an undercurrent of humiliation to even the most innocent of encounters. Cool. What if we go Big Brother one better by putting a group of formerly famous people in a house together? What could be more pathetic than a houseful of one-time winners desperately trying to prove that they are not losers–and failing miserably.

It is immediately apparent that these shows aren’t “reality” programs at all, but precisely constructed exercises in humiliation. We watch them not to enjoy the seemingly natural (but ultimately spurious) unscriptedness of these shows, but because we find the cruelty itself so compelling. Even a reality show as seemingly innocuous as The Osbournes finds its core entertainment value in the sad pathos of its drugged, mentally-ill protagonist and his dysfunctional family.

An all-too-human tendency to not only tolerate but even participate in the infliction of pain and suffering on others–especially on those who cannot fight back–was observed in another infamous psychology experiment that was later condemned for unethical treatment of unwitting test subjects. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 split a random group of men into “prisoners” and “guards.” Almost immediately, the guards took it upon themselves to develop increasingly humiliating tortures for their prisoners to endure. In fact, they were so successful at concocting demeaning situations that the experiment, planned for two weeks, was cut short after just six days.

Are we the television audience, aligning ourselves with those “prison guards” when we take delight in the humiliation of reality show participants? What was it, after all, that compelled more Americans to tune in the final episode of Joe Millionaire–a show where women competed desperately for the hand of a fabulously wealthy hunk they had not yet learned was actually a construction worker of limited means–rather than watch Dan Rather’s exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t it the chance to see, from a safe distance, the shock and humiliation on the face of a woman who had engaged in a sex act under false pretenses only to be rejected in the end by Joe, our avatar?

It’s one thing to admit that the popularity of this kind of show exposes unpleasant truths about human nature. But can such cruel diversions actually turn us into crueler people? A study released recently by two psychologists at University of Michigan suggests just that. It found that men who had frequently watched violent programs as children were more likely to shove people than those who watched them less.

Other studies have concluded that after being shown violent TV programs, children are more inclined to behave violently toward their peers. And such links aren’t limited to just physical behavior. In 2002 researchers at the National Institute on Media and the Family attempted to demonstrate that watching violent TV makes kids not just more physically violent, but “relationally violent”–in other words–meaner.

Such research is famously fraught with difficulties. For example, just because socially and physically violent people watch meaner, more violent programs doesn’t mean that such shows cause mean and violent behavior. It might just be that people with an especially strong tendency to behave violently gravitate to TV shows that specialize in violence.

But even if TV cruelty only panders to existing tendencies in some of us, we engage in tele-sadism at our own risk. This is the real lesson to be learned from those psychological experiments of the past that look so much like today’s reality programs. In the Milgram experiment at Yale, it was the “teachers”–the pain givers–who, confronted by their own capacity to mete out punishment, became wracked with guilt and shame. These were ordinary folks who discovered they were capable of great cruelty, as long as it was somehow “justified” by the situation. Either the infliction of pain was presented as being “good” for the recipients (the actors who pretended to suffer), or it was seen as a “natural” outcome of the social hierarchy set up in the experiment. So who was ultimately responsible for inflicting the real pain in these experiments? The researchers who devised the experiments in the first place! And like the pain givers who were merely “following orders,” these researchers had elaborate justifications for their actions, based on the perceived value of their work to science and to society at large.

Indisputably, there’s a harsh emotional price to be paid by even passive observers of cruelty. The pleasure we take from watching cruelty also requires justification, some internal adjustment of attitude that blames the unwitting victim for being greedy or stupid or self-deluded or in some other sense “deserving” of his or her treatment.

In the great uncontrolled social experiment that is network TV, we, with remote controls in our hands, are the test group. The question is, how far will we go? How much cruelty on the part of the producers will we find “enjoyable”? Long ago, the limits of audience appetite were tested in this fashion, bringing us the death matches of the Coliseum in Imperial Rome–and we know what happened to the society that sponsored them. But unlike the Romans, this time we have no emperor to blame. By rewarding reality shows with high ratings we the audience are in fact responsible for their continued success–which means that we are ultimately responsible, in cahoots with the producers and the networks, for the pain and humiliation inflicted. Now that’s interactive entertainment.