Reality – What A Concept

“Life is what happens to you

                      while you’re busy making other plans

                                        – John Lennon

I’ve written before about the lack of interesting shows on Pay TV. To me it appeared a lot of Pay TV was just a bunch of commercials for insurance companies loosely tied together with the odd moment of programming.

I need to modify that.

I now think a lot of Pay TV is just a bunch of commercials for insurance companies wrapped up in programmes about human stupidity and conflict.

We’ve become voyeurs in a world gone crazy.

I spent the last thirteen years of my working life as a technical person in a network maintenance and control centre for a major telecommunications company. This company dealt with all forms of electronic information transmission, including mobile phone, local telephony, high-speed data and pay TV. The network was dubbed the Hybrid Fibre-Coax network, or HFC for short.

In its formative years this company was in brisk competition with the incumbent telecommunications provider, a provider that had been around ever since we stepped up from tin cans and string and started pumping electrons down bits of wire into people’s homes.

The streets around Australia became a tangle of optical fibres and coaxial cables strung along the infrastructure owned by the various power companies. The competing telcos paid power companies a fee to be able to hang huge aluminium boxes containing lasers and amplifiers from thick grey black cables, which were then bolted to brackets nailed into their power poles.

There were cables everywhere.

Pay TV had arrived, and both companies went into overdrive trying to gain an advantage over each other.

The one thing they both needed but had little of was content.

It wasn’t enough to say you had a Pay TV network – you actually needed something for the punters to watch – and this led to a massive bidding war to secure shows that you could sell to people. They could no longer offer reruns of M*A*S*H or show repeat documentaries about the mating habits of the three-toed sloth in the Amazon basin.

No, to get the Australian public to buy this great new thing they needed programmes.

And that’s why we have the current situation on our televisions.

The American networks quickly cottoned on to the fact that there were rich pickings in the Antipodes. They saw immediately that the bosses down under would pay top dollar for anything even remotely watchable, and they set about inventing TV shows. Bidding wars got out of hand as truckloads of cash changed hands.

Reality TV, born in 1948 when Alan Funt played tricks on people in Candid Camera saw its chance to grow. An industry hell-bent on cashing in started pointing cameras at anything and everything. Everyday life became saleable, regardless of how mundane it appeared.

People going about their ordinary business became overnight celebrities, and the TV networks lapped it up. It didn’t matter how ridiculous the concept was; if it had people and interpersonal conflict it would sell. All captured in fast action zoom. Just add some discordant metal thrash music and you’ve got a show.

Take a dysfunctional family who have been in the business of making unrideable motorcycles by bolting engines into bits of welded steel, add some extra tension by ensuring the patriarch has a pre-existing steroid addiction, and you have a TV series. It helps if the sons suffer from ADHD, because that provides plenty of opportunity to capture them trashing cars and destroying buildings when things are quiet in the workshop.

Or go for a ride on a fishing boat, take along your cameras, and sit back and watch the sparks fly. It helps if one of the deckhands loses a finger or gets trapped under a crab pot. That’s sure to be worth filming. It helps even more if one or two get washed overboard in sub-zero temperatures.

Pan, zoom, focus, cut away.

Then there are shows about people collecting things, and this in itself provides ample opportunity to get some really amazing footage. There’s nothing more exciting than watching someone negotiate the purchase of an antique clock.

We see shows about people’s unfounded concerns over an imminent “doomsday”. These people live in caves and hoard canned stew, bottled water and high-powered rifles. They practice drills involving killing. When nuclear war comes they’ll be ready. “A’int nobody gonna take away my chemical toilet, no sir! I’ll shoot ‘em in the face!”

We see people catching slimy bloody catfish using their hands as bait. Yes that’s correct, catfish. It’s unfortunate the show’s producers couldn’t find anyone with teeth worth filming.

Or a bunch of guys running a pawn shop “in the heart of one of America’s most troubled cities” and that “there are millions to be made but their profits come with huge risks”. I never realized that buying stolen jewellery and TVs could be so fascinating.

Here’s a thought, get them to sell the pawnshop and open a MacDonald’s instead. That way we can watch docudramas about the health implications of living totally on a fast food diet. “Tonight on Fat Bastards we see Jerome develop diabetes as his fourteen kids fight over the last Chicken McNugget.” Morgan Spurlock eat your heart out.

Rivetting stuff.

We’ve even got a show about storage units. Yes, storage units. “It’s a dramatic environment as the bidders assess if they think the unit is worth a bid and how high they will actually go.”

Are they for real?

And how’s this for excitement? – tonight there’s a show about people who run a scrap yard, and ‘Darren’s getting married if he can survive a brow waxing, a lost ring, and way too many beers.”

I can’t wait for that one, although it would have been more interesting if on tonight’s episode Darren fell into the crusher and was pulped beyond recognition.

Truckers on dodgy roads, pest exterminators spraying things, fake-tanned bounty hunters, they’re all in there. An ordained minister named “Ron” runs a “towing and repo business” and spends his time repossessing people’s gear, but because he has a soft spot for poor people he then throws them a barbecue each year.

Tuna fishers, furniture restorers, car people. A world of individuals opening up their insular little worlds for all to see; baring their souls in the name of television. Revealing the seedy side of the human condition.

We have shows about people chopping down trees. Chopping… down… trees. “Plagued by mechanical failures, relentless weather, and unpredictable terrain, these brave men risk their lives retrieving the timber with which we built our country.”

If it’s that much trouble why not use bricks?

And let’s not forget the swamp people. “Follow these swampers through the most important time of their year – the thirty-day alligator hunting season… the lost art of doing things the right way and the fierce desire to preserve a dying way of life from the encroaching modern world.”

How? By shooting alligators? No, leave the alligators alone. If you weren’t in their swamp they wouldn’t eat your bloody children! How hard can it be?

Some bright TV executive decided there was still more to be wrung out of the story about swamp people so he combined it with a story about loggers. I can’t mention the name here, but I dare say that if you combined the word “swamp” with a word describing “those who log” you’d be pretty close to guessing the title of this televisual masterpiece.

The shows I’ve mentioned appear on only one channel on my Pay TV subscription yet there are many, many more to explore, all of which are no doubt hiding thrilling programming of epic proportions.

Right now I just don’t have the time to investigate.

I’ve just redecorated the living room, and watching paint dry has never been so much fun.

If everyone demanded peace

                     instead of another television set,

                                       then there’d be peace

                                                       – John Lennon


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