MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I have some thoughts about that strange story involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o and the girlfriend who actually didn't exist. It's my Can I Just Tell You essay and it's in just a few minutes.
But, first now, as we head into the weekend, you might be thinking about your plans and catching some reality TV shows might be part of those plans. Over the past few years, shows like "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" or "Jersey Shore," which recently ended its run, and the "Real Housewives" series have grabbed both ratings and an outsized share of attention. And, of course, the crazier, wilder and more outlandish the show, the more attention.
Here's a clip from the VH1 reality show, "Basketball Wives." In the clip, two of the women get into a profanity-laced argument over something that was written in one of their blogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETBALL WIVES")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. What the (bleep)? You want an apology for the blog? Is that what you want? How can we solve it? What do you want from me? What the (bleep) do you want, Evelyn? What do you want?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Jennifer, tone it down. Tone it down...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No. What do you want?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...because I'm going to punch you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're the one that came in here like...
MARTIN: I think you get the idea. Now, some people think this is just harmless entertainment, but increasingly, there are other critics who believe that the fighting and the confrontation that they are known for are having some disturbing effects on how young women see themselves and perhaps are seen by others.
Janine Amber is a senior writer for Essence magazine and she wrote about this in the January issue and she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
JEANNINE AMBER: Thank you.
MARTIN: You know, reality TV has been around for a while now, it seems. What do you think started it off?
AMBER: I think, when we go back to the mid-'90s and we look at a show like "Jerry Springer," that's when things really sort of took a turn for the more violent. Jerry Springer used to be just a regular talk show host and, around the mid-'90s, he started having people come on his show to air their disputes in front of the cameras and these disputes would escalate so that people would start throwing chairs at each other and his ratings skyrocketed, so that was the first moment that TV producers thought, oh, that's interesting. We didn't know people wanted to watch that.
Then you had, in 2004 - you had "Flavor of Love." I don't know if you watch that much, Michel.
AMBER: Not a big fan?
MARTIN: Just going to sigh deeply here and say - but, you know, "Flavor of Love" has become like such a thing that are, you know - even comedians joke about how terrible it was because that's how notorious it became. But why was that a watershed?
AMBER: You know, on that show, I mean, it was sort of like African-American version of "The Bachelor," so you had "Flavor of Love," who is this 50-something-year-old has-been rapper and all of these very young women vying for his attention, but they were so extreme in their behaviors, so they were fighting. In one scene, one of the women defecated on the floor. They were spitting at each other, pulling hair. I mean, it was some really lurid behavior and, again, broke all VH1 records for viewership, so again, the message was this is what people want to see.
MARTIN: You talked to a number of reality show characters and they told you some interesting things about the way conflict is stirred up. Can you talk a little bit about that?
AMBER: What the producers will do is they'll take people who are having legitimate disagreements with one another for whatever crazy reason and then they put them together over and over again. So that's where things become unreal because, if I can't stand you and you slept with my man, I am not going on a girlfriends' getaway with you for three days just to spend all that time in close quarters. And that's what they do that sort of ignites a lot of these conflicts.
Now, that's what the shows have maintained they're just about reality do. There are other shows that are soft-scripted where the producers have much more of a hand in creating the storyline, so there's degrees of how much they create this conflict, but that's really what they're looking for and, in some shows - one woman spoke with me. She told me that the producers will come to the cast and say, are you fighting with anybody? Do you have any kind of disagreement? And then create scenes around this already existing conflict.
MARTIN: We actually spoke about - a couple of weeks ago on the program - a reality show that Oxygen was contemplating from a guy named Shawty Lo and his baby mamas and he had 11 children by 10 different women.
MARTIN: And they were going to do a reality program about this and this caused, you know, an outcry and we talked about that and, of course, we got the typical kind of response from some people who were saying, oh, well, stop being such a nanny about it and this is just entertainment. We got, in response to that, an email from a woman who identified herself as an actress.
Her name is Mia Cogavia(ph) and she says I'm an actress and I know for fact that reality TV shows are fake. There are a lot more actors on reality TV than you'd realize. She saw an actor friend on a dating show whose personality is much different than his personality in real life. The show didn't disclose that his primary profession is acting and just listed him as a student. But she also said that the reality is shaped by who they invite to be on them.
MARTIN: She said that she once came upon a casting call that wanted people to quote, "be themselves," but only asked for one, "a sassy loudmouth black girl, a feisty Latina, a serious Asian, a bubbly blonde." This is, in her words, what was required. And she said that this just promotes stereotypes of people who are already being stereotyped. And I wanted to ask if you think that that's true.
AMBER: That's absolutely true. And many times contestants are on the shows are actors and they - because they're looking for exposure. And you can become famous from a reality TV show. You can jump from being a contestant on a reality show to being a host of a legitimate show. Now these other shows that purport to be about groups of girlfriends, sometimes these girlfriends have not met one another before the casting of the show. This entire circle of friends was constructed by the producers who do go out looking for certain types. And one of the criteria obviously, is somebody who is outgoing and speaks her mind. And then, you know, there's also confrontational, because every time the cast members get into a fight they get more Twitter followers, people telling them that they love them or hate them. And they just get more press and their on blogs, and suddenly they become celebrities in their own right. So, you know, they look for that and then it's rewarded and then you've, sort of, created a monster.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jeannine Amber. She wrote about reality TV for the January issue of Essence Magazine. So the question would be, why do you care? If people want to watch this we don't have to like it. Why should we care that this programming has become so popular?
AMBER: When you have a bunch of 12 and 13-year-old girls, and sometimes girls who are even younger, watching it, these girls are forming their understanding of the way the world works and the way we resolve conflicts and how trustworthy other girls are. They're forming those opinions based on the information they get. And if they're spending in ordinance amounts of time in front of the TV that is where they're getting these life lessons. So...
MARTIN: Let me just jump in right here and just to cite some research that you've cited in your piece. In 2011, the Girl Scout Research Institute conducted a study with - to your point - 11 to 17-year-old girls, and they found that regular reality TV viewers were far more likely than non-viewers to say quote, "girls often have to compete for a guy's attention." They were more likely to say that gossiping is a normal part of relationship between girls. And they were also more likely to think that bullying and drama, aggression were a part of normal relationships. And they were by significant differences.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is?
AMBER: We can't decipher how much of this may or may not be real, but it's billed as reality, that kids are taking it in as reality and this is where they're getting information about how women interact with one another.
MARTIN: What's the chicken and what's the egg? I mean are people watching the shows because it reflects how they really act or they acting that way because that's how they act on those shows?
AMBER: It's complicated why people watch those shows. One of the reasons obviously, it just gets your adrenaline going when you're watching people duke it out. I mean people are having full on brawls. And part of the reaction we have when we watch these is often, just like, to gasp, you know, because it's so, it's just it's stunning. That's really the only word for some of these altercations that you're seeing. So people are watching because it's hard to turn away.
And another reason - these women here, you know, they have jobs and money and careers, some of them are in their mid-30s or a few women who are in their 40s, and we've glamorized the world of basketball or hip-hop or whatever, and these are the women who travel in those circles. So prior to these shows, there are a lot of young girls who thought if I want to live lifestyle of the rich and famous, that's how I'm going to do it. Now you see these very same women who were supposed to have these enviable lives acting in these crazy, outlandish ways. And you think wow, at least I don't do that. I would never punch someone in the face. I have never had a shoe thrown at me. So you get to feel like, you know, they may have the money but you have the class.
MARTIN: Jeannine Amber is a senior writer for Essence Magazine. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Jeannine, thanks so much for joining us.
AMBER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.