WMU News

Reality-based TV shows raise serious social questions

Aug. 18, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Put a pack of adventurers on a tropical island, make them eat dog food and rats and see who survives. Or confine 10 strangers to a house under 24-hour surveillance and watch what happens.

You now have the idea behind two new reality-based television shows that are raising questions about the ethical treatment of contestants and the public's taste in entertainment, says Dr. George Robeck, a WMU associate professor of communication.

"I'm very concerned about the ethical dimension of this, but I'm also concerned about what this says about entertainment in the 21st century," Robeck says. "These individuals are baited by the producers to see how they will react and the outcome on the individual, on their 'person-hood,' it's not of concern to the producer. I know it is supposed to be a game, and these folks sign agreements when they go into it, I'm sure, but the fact that we accept this as entertainment seems as if we are taking a step backward."

Robeck says social scientists actually could learn something about human behavior by conducting similar experiments, but lack of confidentiality and other ethical concerns would preclude them from doing so.

Robeck adds that the term "reality-based" is also a bit misleading. "The term reality-based is, I think, really a misnomer," he says. "These are not any more real than most other game programs. When you put a person in a situation like this and they know they're being taped, over time they may forget it, but they're really not acting in ways in which most people would operate. The amount of stress these people are under would alter their behavior tremendously."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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