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Pop culture expert offers new take on TV

By : Rachel Coker

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, speaks Nov. 15 at a Harpur Forum breakfast.
It’s time to rethink our views on reality TV, Robert Thompson told members of the Harpur Forum during a speech earlier this month.

Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and the author of five books, has long been fascinated by one question: “Why do smart people watch dumb television?”

Over time, Thompson said, he has concluded that we need to redefine our notion of art – as well as the meaning of words such as “stupid” and “bad” as applied to TV. Television, he claims, is “the world’s greatest storytelling medium.”

Thompson was honest about his own viewing habits, even confessing that he enjoyed Temptation Island, a notorious reality TV show on Fox. “I couldn’t stop watching,” he said. “Was it stupid? Absolutely. But it was Masterpiece Stupidity.”

He points to May 2000 and the introduction of CBS’ Survivor as the birth on network television of something genuinely new. Reality shows, he said, are a totally new way of telling a story, possibly the first new way to be discovered since the novel.

Thompson acknowledges MTV’s The Real World as the first reality TV program, but notes that European television networks developed the core ideas behind shows such as Survivor before they were adopted here.

“Reality TV is kind of like rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “It started on our shores, goes overseas for some cultural laundering and comes back like the British Invasion.”

Dating shows such as The Bachelor scandalized some viewers, Thompson said, but they’re truly conservative. Consider the way young women made so much out of one kiss or the fact that the entire focus of the show is on getting married. A queenless king’s search for a new queen is an idea straight out of the Book of Esther, he notes.

“The best of reality TV is not a guilty pleasure,” he said. “It’s a pleasure. We can’t judge this stuff without seeing it.”

Many pundits predicted that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would be the death of irony, Thompson said, but in fact they changed very little when it came to television. Consider the fact that the following February, NBC’s programming against the Super Bowl was a celebrity edition of Fear Factor featuring models from Playboy centerfolds.

“We wouldn’t want a culture so fickle that one horrible event could change everything,” he said.

What could change everything, Thompson said, is the technological revolution now under way on the Internet. With YouTube and other such sites, anybody has access to a worldwide distribution network.

“We will probably call this the YouTube generation,” he said.

The Internet isn’t going to kill television any more than TV killed radio, Thompson predicted. But it will further break down the mass audience that has been crumbling since the late 20th century.

Consider the shared audience for movies and later television. “We were forced to see, consume and listen to things we didn’t already agree with,” he said. “Now, we have taken that vase of popular culture off the mantel and smashed it.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08