You and Your Image: How Reality TV Redefines
By Farrell Parker
“I’m TIRED of staging Spectacles! I WANT TO BE A SPECTACLE – ME!” – Nero, You, Nero
During the 14 years that Nero was emperor of Rome (A.D. 54–68), gladiator games were more than just entertainment for the masses; they were a form of national security and prosperity. Roman citizens of every status attended these public spectacles and the games were deemed a morale booster. Gladiators offered audiences an example of Roman virtue and, in fighting or dying for their nation, inspired admiration and popular acclaim. Though usually noncitizens or slaves, Roman standards dictated that gladiators be highly trained and courageous athletes.
Today, the crafted work of television, film and theater still competes with the spectacle of less literal fights to the death on reality TV: the contemporary entertainment of the masses.
In a 2007 article in The Atlantic called “A Case for Reality TV,” Michael Hirschorn wrote:“It was clear that CBS News was set on bemoaning what it saw as yet another outrage against the culture. The central complaint, per Katie Couric’s intro to the report, was that more people had watched American Idol the previous week than watched the State of the Union address on all the broadcast networks combined. When the segment ended, Couric signed off with an extravagant eye roll. “We’re doing our part here at CBS News,” she seemed to be saying, “but the barbarians are massing at the gates, people.” A line had been drawn in the sand, as if the news were now akin to an evening at the Met.”
Being government-sanctioned, it is probable that gladiator games received less criticism than the phenomenon of reality TV (though gladiator games certainly were certainly not immune from critique). Just like the televised events today, both the games and the speeches were open to the public. While there are no official records available to tell us how many ancient Romans attended gladiator games versus how many attended important political speeches of the day, chances are that human nature hasn’t changed all that much over the past two millennia and that most Romans probably found the gladiator games a whole lot more entertaining and engaging than those speeches.
About Those Gladiators…
Gladiators participated in live combat arena events for the Roman populace from the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 5th century C.E. Gladiator games were originally tied closely to munus – a Latin word meaning duty, tribute, or offering. Games were held to honor deceased citizens who were important members of society and even as political fundraisers for vying senators who “sponsored” a game or a gladiator.
The original games (from what we know) were a morally instructive form of historic enactment in which the gladiator was to fight well or die well. Most gladiators were slaves, though some were volunteers, ex-soldiers or noncitizens. Gladiator schools offered regular food, housing and a chance at fame and fortune. Gladiators kept their prize money and any gifts they received, though they were strongly tied and beholden to a master or sponsor. Spectators of games decided whether or not a losing gladiator should be spared and chose the winner in the rare event of a standing tie. Verus, whose life is chronicled in the BBC documentary Coliseum: A Gladiator’s Story, is the gladiator about whom we know the most.
Reality TV: A History
A Google search of reality TV reveals an astonishing number of scholarly articles on the subject: articles on the genre’s societal, social and psychological impact; articles on its economics and ratings; articles defending or decrying the genre.
Most sources agree that the first true precedent for reality TV was 1948’s hidden camera show Candid Camera. Talent search shows popped up shortly thereafter, followed by the popular broadcast of the Miss America contest in 1954. 1950s game shows such as Truth or Consequences also helped pave the way for contemporary reality TV.
It took another two decades for the first show officially considered reality TV to air: the 12-part 1973 PBS series An American Family. On An American Family, film crews chronicled the seemingly typical loud family as they dealt with divorce and the coming out of a gay son. An American Family, ahead of its time for 1973, fit into this newest television genre. It was beyond documentary: not just observation but storytelling and story creation from filmed real events and from a real family.
The rest, as they say, is history. Fifteen years later, America’s Most Wanted and Cops premiered. In 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike for six months against major U.S. film and television studios. This pushed back fall programming for U.S. networks and created a demand for programming that did not require writers. Reality TV filled that need, and as a genre without unionized actors and writers, it quickly became a way to pay for the more expensive, traditionally scripted and acted programming. America’s Funniest Home Videos, one of the launch-pads for YouTube, made it on air in 1990. And The Real World ushered in the age of reality TV (not to mention MTV), as we know it in 1992. The early 2000s saw two other hugely popular, primetime game changers: Survivor (2000) and American Idol (2002).
Reality TV is now enmeshed in the fabric of American culture and economy. In the current market, reality TV is now essential to the economic viability of any television network. There are nearly as many Reality TV genres as there are cable channels. An essay question about the value of reality TV even made it onto the writing section of the SAT test this past March, though not without protest.
You, Too Can Be a Gladiator!
Think we’ve advanced past the barbarism of gladiator games? Here are a few gladiator-reality TV comparisons.
Anyone can be a gladiator. Anyone can be a reality TV star.
In Ancient Rome, if you messed up (for example, a soldier who surrendered) you could become a gladiator for a second chance at honor and renown. Today, C-list celebrities can appear on a plethora of reality shows to make new names for themselves! Similarly, a slave or noncitizen (very low status in Ancient Rome) could become a gladiator and keep the money from their winnings, as well as have the potential to gain renown. Today, even if you lack fame or notoriety, you can always apply or audition for a reality show. There are dozens of reality shows casting every week. Just like gladiators in Rome, we go through reality stars quickly in America. They all promise you the chance to win a million dollars, a record deal, or just 15 minutes of exposure.
Gladiators did not have control over their lives. Reality TV stars do not have control over their stories.
Just as the network is in complete control of what viewers see during the hour per week a reality show airs, sponsors and masters had complete control of the games in which a gladiator participated. The tradeoff is exposure and potential victory for control over your life.
Romans got to decide whether gladiators ultimately lived or died. Viewers get to decide which reality show contestants win or lose.
The crowd decided a gladiator’s fate, if he was reasonably defeated in battle. Audience participation. Shows like Dancing with the Stars and American Idol put the audience in control of the final fate of contestants. Giving an audience control of the outcome is a surefire way to get them in seats or on the couch.
Gladiator games were always violent. Reality TV is often violent.
Gladiators fought to the death. The stakes were high. Shows like Survivor had at least the appearance of real danger for the contestants. Snooki got punched on an episode of Jersey Shore. Anything can happen.
Gladiators were skilled and trained athletes. Reality TV finds skilled and trained participants and showcases them.
It is only entertaining to watch poor fighters pummel each other for so long. Gladiator games were thrilling because the fighters were so skilled. Same goes for reality TV. We can only watch judge Simon Cowell, previously of American Idol, ridicule terrible singers for so many episodes. When the best of the best are competing, we really get hooked.
Gladiator games showcased defeat, triumph, and pure spectacle. Reality shows do the same.
In an April 2011 online article, Time chronicled “32 Epic Moments in Reality-TV History.” Half the moments were defeat moments, a quarter triumph, and a quarter spectacle. Snooki from Jersey Shore gets punched in a bar: defeat. Susan Boyle rises to the top on Britain’s Got Talent: triumph.A sea captain dies on Deadliest Catch: defeat. Paris Hilton visits a nudist community on The Simple Life: spectacle. Gladiator games would have been a combination of all three elements. We love to watch some people fail, other people win, and still others just make fools of themselves.
While civilization may have developed, human nature has not. In their 2004 report “Why People Watch Reality TV,” published in Media Psychology, authors Steven Reiss and James Wiltz created the Desire Profile to explain why certain people watched reality TV. The Desire Profile measures how basic motives result in a particular joy. Reality viewers were found to have significantly higher motives for status and vengeance. We may no longer use death as such obvious entertainment, but the psychological motives that kept the Romans at the Colosseum are perhaps uncomfortably close to those that keep us hooked on reality TV.
Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Farrell is a graduate of Boston Univ. and a recent D.C. transplant. An event planner and an actress, she is an advocate for good food and good theater. Farrell has been volunteering with Arena Stage since 2011.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.