Ever since the first season of MTV's Real World and Rescue 911, television audiences became accustomed to watching other people when put into unusual circumstances. Then came the backlash: reality tv was not “real.” Television studios began to seek out ways to make reality more believable.
It’s hard to say who first came out with the idea of showing the seedy and sometimes dirty side of “real” life, but following in the vein of documentaries, a genre not frequently acknowledged by the average TV viewer, networks like A&E, MSNBC, and once again MTV began to push shows that were meant to educate the general public about issues that are usually avoided.
The most common issue portrayed being addiction in its many forms. However, despite any good intentions producers may claim to posses there is a dark side to this kind of programming as the bulimic teenager demonstrates the effectiveness of rubbermaid containers in hiding the smell of vomit and the church going drug addict demonstrates the best way to hide track marks. These lessons begin to raise questions about the benefits of such shows. Are the positives worth the risk and why does the public enjoy such shows? Is it a sincere effort to understand and recognize addiction or has the public become so immune to the sight of human struggles that anything with a plot can be labeled as entertaining?
One show that has gained such popularity is Intervention. The premise of the show is to show an addict living life and handling his/her addiction during a period of 48 hours. The addict believes a documentary on addiction is being shot which is why the producers are interested in their story. Truth is a group of family and friends have come together to participate in an intervention so that the addict may receive treatment.
Although the show does have its benefits, the family and addicts receive help all the while showing viewers the signs of addiction should they need to come to grips with their families issues, there is a downside. In showing the life of an addict, addicts or potential addicts who are watching are being given a crash course in living and hiding an addiction.
One case in point is an episode in which a crack addict demonstrates how she takes a voided check and using a household solvent, removes all the pen ink from the check so that she can have a blank check to make out to herself. Another addict, an anorexic who happens to be a successful, professional ballet dancer, introduced audiences to her “chew-spit” method. This act tricks the mind in thinking there is food coming in without it actually reaching the stomach.
MTV was quick to introduce their at times bizarre “True Life” reality show. Although this is only one in their list of shows with a focus on real life with, real issues, this is the most popular. Various topics are showcased ranging from cheerleading to military servicemembers.
Once again the most watched episodes are those that focus on addicts. There was the junk food addict who would sneak out and buy food to eat in his car so that his parents would never know. A girl with bulimia taught viewers that bleach would dispel the smell when one threw up in the employer's sink. It is the true life series that follows the girl who demonstrates the usefulness of rubbermaid containers. When sealed the scent is contained, but when opened the sight and smell is so overwhelming that it forces one to throw up again.
So what should happen now? It is known more is appearing on the screen than “this is your brain on drugs.” Yet, shows like these continue to be added to station lineups. Network execs will declare the goodwill of such shows, emphasizing the shows' ability to begin discussions otherwise forgotten by the public.
But is it really for the awareness or the ratings. The popularity of the shows have reached such proportions that other mainstream show makes reference to them. (Family Guy held an Intervention for Brian's drug addiction) However, at what costs are being paid? Television is a double edge sword for addiction and networks and viewers alike should beware of the direction it is being wielded.