Television has new stars

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2008

there is a strange kind of realism in television these days. Characters on a lot of shows appear much less plastic today. Every time you turn on the television, you are likely to find some "real people" popping up on shows that combine competition and confinement, humiliation and voyeurism in varying degrees. Whatever critics might say, reality tv has become de rigeur.

But television audiences in the First World have been saturated with the lives of wannabes and frustrated celebrities. It seems there are hardly any "real and original" personalities. So reality tv companies are driven to the deep wilderness in search of the last people not spoilt by the industrial society complex. Stark naked little guys with quaint bows and arrows, funny-looking penis sheaths and living in trees are kosher.

Most often tv crews are not sensitive to local exigencies. Take a recent case in Peru. Representatives of Cumerjali, a remote indigenous community, insist a researcher from London film company spread an infection killing four people (see page 56). The company was warned by Peru's government to desist from invading the privacy of the Cumerjali people.

These forays of reality tv perpetuate an imagery conceived by a 19th century alliance of anthropologers and photographers, that of tribals in their "innocent" state. It's another matter these images were taken after the tribal groups were ravaged by colonialism.

Today in the era of digital images when computer games mimic real wars, it might be hard for even the most naive eye to believe what it sees. But tv casts an enormous sway over audience perception and digitization has, in fact, aided it. We know of the images, not the circumstances in which they were taken. We believe them though they might be contrived. That's why reality tv is dangerous.

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