Ok … I admit it.  I’m hooked on Reality TV.  However, I am under no illusions that the name for this genre of television programs is accurate.

It started for me with discovering this little known daytime show, “Starting Over”, which I found one random morning when channel flipping.  Headed by Life Coach, Rhonda Britten, six (I think – can’t remember exactly) lived together in a house in Chicago to work on specific issues in each woman’s life.  Various life coaches joined Rhonda, specifically, Iyanla Vanzant, who, at one time, had done a few Oprah shows.  They spent a certain amount of time in the house – and eventually most would “graduate” in a ceremony, where they received some specific “prize” which would help them continue their life’s improvement.  As one woman would leave, another would arrive.  There was always drama between the women, intermixed with working on their issues.

I think the early shows were “real” – and Rhonda and the other life coaches genuinely helped many of the women.  However, as the show gained popularity, it began to have a “fake” feel to it – at least to me.  First of all, the “Starting Over House” moved to the glitzy LA, Hollywood area.  Second – the women in the house seemed to be more “bizarre”, like the show’s producers needed to “top” the problems of the previous women.

I was sad when the show ended, but as I thought about it, I realized it had declined in quality as the show’s popularity increased.

Somehow publicity – at least in my opinion – tainted the entire purpose of the show.  The women became celebrities in their own right.  Not only did they have to deal with the issues that brought them to the house, they also had to deal with notoriety.  Ultimately, I’m not sure how many of the women really DID conquer their issues.

Bring on “Jon and Kate Plus 8”.  I discovered that show before most people knew it existed – also by random channel flipping.  In the beginning Kate was an average kind of woman with a simple pixie haircut wearing either shorts and a t-shirt in summer or sweats in winter.  With 8 kids to care for, who had time for glamour?  She was smart, very organized, and ran a tight ship.  With 8 kids – how chaotic would it get if you didn’t?  But – maybe her hold was too tight.  Jon, who was laid back (maybe too much so?), often got in the middle of that, and the fur would occasionally fly.  But – seemingly – they loved each other.

Was it real?  I think it started out so – or to some extent.

Enter notoriety.  Enter too much money.  Or – that is my analysis of what happened.  Kate became sophisticated, and began sporting various trendy hair styles and glamorous clothes.  Their fights got worse, divorce happened, and Jon is (in my opinion) a rather “lost” single guy, dating various women – bouncing from PA (with his kids) to NYC, and who knows where else, while Kate is pursuing a career in show business.  Both have been dramatically changed by a show designed to document their “reality”.

I just finished watching “The Bachelor” series – another “reality” show.  Since when is it “reality” to get to know a perspective mate in a St Lucia type paradise (where all one’s creature comforts – and more – are provided) while competing for that man’s love with 25 other women??  Does one truly reveal their real “self” with this type of “competition” in place?  Each woman puts their best foot forward, desperately hiding whatever flaws they have, while meanwhile creating drama with the other women. The relationship become “contrived”.  Plus, in such a cloistered environment, how does one ever know how that perspective mate will handle job loss, house repairs, money problems, and even the most mundane things as laundry, cooking, mowing the lawn and house cleaning?

I did some internet research, and I don’t think that there have been any marriages that have come out of these connections, even though many became engaged on the show.  “Reality” kicked in – and they found they were not suited to each other!  And – that doesn’t even touch what I perceive to be the huge mistake Jake made when choosing “raw chemistry” with Vienna over an admitted stronger emotional connection with Tenley.

There are so many other Reality shows I’ve watched:  “Wife Swap”, “Nanny 911”, “The Little Couple”, “19 Kids and Counting”, “The Biggest Loser”, “American Idol”, “Extreme Home Makeover”.  And, that just is the tip of the iceberg.  Add to that all the ones on HGTV – like “House Hunters”, “Property Virgins”, etc.  They are reality shows – of sorts, too.

What’s real about these shows?  The usual stated purpose of the show is to document life as it is, or life in a created situation which the show’s producers introduce.  But – in my opinion, the reality show itself creates it’s own reality, different from what it’s intended purpose was to be.  And – these shows take “prisoners”.  In my opinion, the participants pay dearly for their involvement.  The TV camera, and the resulting media interest, alters them – and the situation.

I do not deny there is good that can happen – and has happened.  I’m sure that there were some women on “Starting Over” who were helped.  And, some participants on “The biggest Loser” finally got their weight off, and have learned how to keep it off.  I just wonder what the percentage of “good outcomes” is.

As I read what I’ve written, I wonder about the ethics of watching these shows, as I contribute to this exploitation when I support the shows.  I rationalize that the participants of these shows VOLUNTEER to do them (or most do – Jon and Kate’s children didn’t get a say – another issue for another time…!).  Despite these concerns, I know I’ll continue to watch.  I’m hooked, and the only explanation is that, like many others, I am a voyeur at heart.  I don’t believe you could not be otherwise and desire to sneak a peak in other people’s lives via this medium.  The fact that these are “real people” and not actors makes it more compelling to me.

But – why?

Bottom line — it’s a distraction from my OWN reality.  I see others who have it worse, or those with vastly different lives from mine.  I can lose myself in their drama – and be glad I’m not them, or maybe admire them, depending on the circumstances.    But – in the process – I can – if only for a moment – forget my own life.