Reality Television is Like Affective Crack

I made the mistake of watching Hell’s Kitchen last night and the image and sound of Gordon Ramsey swearing for half-an-hour is now etched in my mind. It’s amazing they can put that amount of blasphemy on the air. Of course they bleep it out but that doesn’t fool anyone, not even children.

What made me remember the experience, aside from having a strange Ramsey-like figure haunting my dreams last night, was the shamelessness of the affective appeals to the audience. The whole show is one long exercise in schadenfreude.

We watch just to see the next person start to cry or completely lose track of the orders coming into the kitchen. These people are chumps I thought to myself. Of course I was an even bigger chump to keep watching. But the disaster was just too big to avoid. I was like a deer in the headlights waiting for the car to crash into me.

I’ve never been a fan of reality television for precisely these reasons. Reality television is all affective-crack, all the time. It doesn’t end.

A few weeks ago I was making dinner while my mom watched Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in the other room. They blew up a house. But first they had the build up, a fridge, a couch, some other miscellaneous items. Then came the house. When the editors saw the footage they must have felt like porn producers who had captured the money shot of the decade. The host screamed at the same time as the house blew up on camera. And they showed it over and over. They must have cut the explosion down to three seconds and repeated it over a dozen times.

Normal dramatic television is different in degree but not in kind. Even news television relies on the same formula of repetition.

I thought McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media might help to explain this difference. But I always get the two confused. Watching Hell’s Kitchen felt like a hot experience. According to McLuhan a hot medium is exclusive and highly defined, like radio. A cool medium is participatory and low definition, like television. The only way this fits is if you view emotional appeals as a form of participation and I’m not sure I do.