Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Sat, 04/25/2009 1:34 PM | Entertainment
When life becomes boring, people turn to the drama of movies and soap operas. When these dramas become soaked in pathos, we stoop to the last resort:The reality show.
A huge number of reality TV programs have been flooding our screens recently, claiming to provide us with real footage of stories and events.
Covering a wide range of genres, from elimination game shows, dating competitions, makeover projects and talk shows, these programs have attracted millions of viewers.
With the lure of an hour of fame, reality TV shows coax an inexhaustible string of participants willing to do anything from revealing personal stories, to eating bizarre animals to walking on fire in the jungle.
Reality TV contestants are sometimes criticized as "B grade" celebrities who occupy an absurd form of fame.
Despite the name, perhaps "reality" TV still uses the age old recipe of entertainment: conflict and dramas.
Even with these old-school elements, reality shows surpass the ratings of prime time soap operas.
Take Termehek-mehek, a program on TransTV where hosts - Panda and Mandala - help participants find their missing loved-ones.
The latest AGB Nielsen rating for March 2009 put Termehek-mehek on the top of the list of 100 programs from all stations nationwide.
After success with Termehek-mehek, the station now produces other reality programs such as Orang Ketiga (The Third Person), Happy Family: Me vs Mom, Makin Gaya (Get Stylish), Realigi, First Love, and Jika Aku Menjadi (If I were).
The 2009 Panasonic Awards confirmed that TransTV is dominating the ratings war with its long list of reality programs.
Termehek-mehek, which started in May 2008, was awarded the most popular reality show, while the presenter of Happy Family: Me vs Mom, Ruben Onsu, was awarded the most popular reality show presenter.
But how real is TV reality show?
Termehek-mehek executive producer Herny Mulyani said the popularity of reality shows was a response to the fact that many TV programs had been accused of being overtly unrealistic.
"We are trying to create something the audience can relate to as well as be entertained by," she explained.
Reality TV shows plots were also more authentic and engaging than scripted dramas, said Herny.
"An affair would be much more interesting if it was real rather than scripted.
"People will feel the emotion if, for example, they watch people fighting for real or if they see our crews being beaten."
Despite the "real" aspect of on screen conflict, film crews often try to provoke emotional responses from their participants before the cameras start rolling.
"We talk to people about their problems. Sometimes we ask people related to the participants to work with us also," she explained.
Herny said crew members filmed real negotiations that usually involved conflict, but did not air the footage without the consent of the people involved.
"At the end of the filming, we will persuade them to allow us to use the footage.
"Sometimes we succeed, other times we have to abandon the shots altogether."
Some also give their consent conditionally, requesting the footage be shown only once or with blurred faces, street signs or license plate numbers.
The TransTV production department head, Roan Y. Anprira, said all stories were based on true events, but the production crews employed "certain measures to achieve their desired effect".
Anprira denied claims that some episodes were too good to be true, where for example, very complicated problems were solved in very short periods of time.
"People don't know how many failures we have been through during our production. We only air successful projects, but we also have lots of unresolved stories," he said.
However, he admitted that if crew members failed to locate certain people needed, relatives and friends would take their place.
Social psychologist from Yogyakarta's Gajah Mada University, Helly Soetjipto, doubted programs dubbed "reality" actually presented the facts.
"If these programs are real, it might help people improve their self esteem. But if these programs are fake, then TV stations have provided false knowledge about how to deal with life's problems," Soetjipto said. "The thing is, this kind of knowledge will be imitated in real life."
Andi Christianto, the executive producer of Shandiego Creative Media - a production house that produces reality shows for SCTV - said people misunderstood the term "reality show".
For him, nothing is real in any program titled "show", even when coupled with the term "reality".
"Reality shows exploit real stories that we get from the audience. They can't be as real. There are always some modifications. Even a documentary needs editing," said the man who produced Cinta Lama Bersemi Kembali (Old Love blooms), Pacar Pertama (First Love), Backstreet, Cinta Lokasi, Mak Comblang (Matchmaker), Cinta Monyet (Puppy Love), and (Hesitate).
Filming could even be repeated several times due to the poor acting skills of the cast.
"To be honest there is no filming that isn't directed or that is not noticed by the people who are filmed," he said.
Although the production cost of a reality program could be as low as half of the production cost of a scripted program, filming people without their permission, said Christianto, was risky and unethical.
"It's trapping people. Who would dare losing million of dollar being sued?"
A set-up reality is not only related to risk of losing money, but also to time.
Therefore, events on screen are manipulated through editing and other post-production techniques.
"If we follow the event in real time, we would never meet the deadline. The filming takes about two hours and the editing take at least three days."
In light of this, would you still watch reality TV?
Perhaps, as we are driven by our thirst for real drama, reality TV won't cut it anymore.
Or perhaps we will always thrive on the humiliation and conflict of others.
Either way, we seem to have turned a blind eye to "reality".