Economic (science) fiction on TV

How TV works is an interesting economics question.  Many shows are “free” to their audiences, and yet the TV networks make money because of advertising.  Of course, the ads will have “reach” power only if the programming catches a large-enough audience.  One especially successful show is Pinoy Big Brother (PBB), which is said to be a “reality” show because the “stars” in it play themselves and not fictional characters.

George started it in 1984.

Still, it seems that a fictional kind of self-indulgence infuses PBB.  Its housemates apparently have to do some cooking and cleaning to earn their keep, but that seems to be it for the observance of the dismal no-free-lunch law of economics.  The show otherwise generously serves up the neuroses of the Pinoy post-generation X. Recently, a besotted young female obsessed about her date with a male celebrity, of course at the  prodding of Big Brother, who godlike grants or withholds wishes.

One from the Old School is likely to remark on the lack of real-life issues in the show.  There seems to be no room in it for the tedious task of looking for a job or keeping one.  In the PBB world there seems also to be little sign of the dysfunctions that plague families with an absent parent or who daily face poverty as their reality “out there.” It is as though the housemates were children – and indeed they are so childlike – who seek their dreams within a glass house. True, their reality is an absence of a script, but Big Brother plays their two-bit puppeteer.  That reality isn’t really it.

And what lessons do the voyeur-viewers learn?

One is that an “honest” job matters little. The trick for housemates is to fascinate the audience into finding them lovable enough not to be “kicked out” of the fraternity-cum-sorority house.  Once out, a housemate would have lost his chance at the big time. (If this sounds like the Philippine Senate, so be it!) Still, audience appeal here is not so simple.  A thoroughly obnoxious character can stay on as a foil in a prolonged love-hate cycle.  A truly amiable one has no chance because elementary decency is boring.  Nonetheless, the contest between good and evil can be exploited, though not too openly. Titillation and suspense remain the enduring formula.

Another is that lying around doing essentially nothing is cool.  It is as though the show mirrors the audience’s secret wish to get away with getting fed or given toys anyhoo, courtesy of an enabler, often laboring abroad, so that the child can have some material happiness. How else can one live in a house with a swimming pool? Yet I’m not even sure that these children are grateful.

A third is an acceptance of what might be called the Wowowee factor, from another TV show where, for a little attention and money, contestants dance on cue.  I cannot call this factor “exploiting the poor.”  It seems rather a case of the audience thinking to themselves that there go they but for the grace of You-know-Who.  That PBB characters can be so “hopeless” is perfectly fine for the viewer who sees his hang-ups to be of a lesser order.

This is not to put down these shows.  That they draw an audience proves the economist’s market truth (the ad-viewing consumer is King), as well as the adage supposedly attributed to P. T. Barnum that “a sucker [is] born every minute.”  In the race for ad revenues it pays to cater to the lowest common denominator.  And if it works, well, it works.

But let us call a spade a spade and a pitchfork something else.  It is the fantasy in the mind of the audience that seeps out of “reality” shows. The shows prosper because the audience wants to escape while invading others’ privacy, though with consent. And TV shows can then sell shampoo in tiny sachets, body deodorants for those who don’t box, food products with undue amounts of fat and salt, and what-have-you.  Ultimately, the consumer pays for the TV crew and producers (so-so), the TV network managers and their talents (very well), and the struggling young actors (somewhat meagerly).  Almost sad, but do we really care?

One answer is that we don’t, thanks to a Filipino form of schadenfreude.  Who would have thought we had that in common with Germans? Never mind; the concept of the PBB show originated in the Netherlands.

[This post was published in the Philippine Daily Tribune, Jan. 24, 2010.]

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