This is a reprint of an interview which originally appeared on the former RealityTVFans.com site.
Reality TV's Infidel in the Temple
May 6, 2001
by MissMary - RealityTVfans.com
Ben Alexander, otherwise known as Infidel in the Temple on our
message boards, agreed to do an interview with us regarding his
feelings about reality TV. As you may be able to tell by his Web
name, he is not a fan of the genre. In fact, he’s written a play
based loosely on the ‘Big Brother’ premise that portrays what he
believes is the dark side of this new TV phenomenon. Many of the
following questions were submitted by members of
RTVF: First the obvious question - What is the number one
reason you dislike reality TV?
B.A.: Essentially, I consider it to be an emotional blood sport. It
puts groups of participants in artificial conditions expressly
designed to bring out the worst in them, designed to induce them
to form relationships with each other and get hurt in those
relationships through the structure of the game. They're in a
situation that makes some bonds of friendship inevitable, because
they're in each other's constant company and are sharing in
common being in a strange new environment. It's inevitable that
some of them will form friendships, take them seriously, and in
doing so then be devastated by betrayal. And this is what the
producers are packaging for entertainment. I think the people who
go on them are making a risky mistake, and I think the people
who watch those shows should question the kind of entertainment
and the kind of emotional catharsis that they're getting from them.
RTVF: So would you agree that those that go into a show to try to
make friends is a really bad idea, as opposed to those that can
separate their emotions from playing the game?
B.A.: Well, I think going on one of these shows for any reason is
a bad idea, but yes, going on to make friends would be the pits in
the judgment department. But I don't think people ever do
consciously go on for that motive. I think, rather, that once things
get going, the whole circumstance of being in a strange new
environment with constant surprises and the lack of contact with
anything familiar causes people to feel a sense of common bond
with the others who share that circumstance, especially when
they're constantly in each other's company and have nobody else
to commune with. That's essentially how I think on-air friendships
get formed, and with those friendships, expectations that will later
be shattered. And of course, some are more susceptible to it than
others. If you take the first season of "Big Brother," Brittany was
certainly more susceptible than Eddie.
By the way, I want you to know, I really appreciate the privilege of
being interviewed here. With my candid opinions on these
message boards, I wouldn't blame people at all if they wanted to
shoo me away like an obnoxious puppy, but you've actually
invited me to sit at the table. That is nice of you.
RTVF: It's always nice to see all sides of a situation, I think.
Being a reality TV fan is only a part of who people are, as being
an anti-reality TV fan is only part of who you are. I think it's
important that all of us think about our feelings towards anything
we feel strongly about, and at least try to see other's points of
Moving on - What type of TV shows do you watch and why?
B.A.: I used to watch TV a lot more than I do now. Essentially,
now, I only watch TV when I'm in a living situation where it
provides a bonding experience. I lived in a shared apartment for a
while, and watched "Coach" and "Murphy Brown" with my
roommates. Those were sitcoms that had some intelligence and
creativity in the writing. When I lived in a graduate student
residence hall, I occasionally went to the TV room for that silly
"Seinfeld," but that was more to be sociable, and even then I often
got bored and went back to my studies. I'd say, though, I can go
for sitcoms that aren't all cheap sexual wisecracks.
RTVF: Is there anything that could make you into a reality TV
B.A.: Well, getting rid of banishment votes would be a start. You
know, I never watched "The Mole," but from what little I heard of it,
it sounded a little less objectionable because it sounded like,
maybe, possibly, it was a well-enough-defined *game* that people
could keep from taking the playing of it personally. The trouble
with shows like "Big Brother" and "Survivor" is that the game of
banishment votes calls for people to inflict personal hurts on each
other in the form of "go away, we don't want you." I'd never be a
fan of a show that has that.
RTVF: Yes, The Mole was based primarily on getting ousted if
you didn't do well on the tests, which required memory and a lot
of guess work. It wasn't actually about voting people out. Viewers
complained about the editing not showing enough of the player
interaction though. They (the producers) plan to expand on this
next season. Why do you think the public wants to see more
personal interaction than game play?
B.A.: Well, let's see. I think the first factor would be what, in the
parlance, is called voyeurism. After that, I think there's a
secondary factor, that being: voyeurism. Moving along down the
list, I think this is supplemented by something that has come to
be known, over the ages, as; can you say it with me?
RTVF: Of all the past contestants on all the past reality TV
shows, which ten would you choose to put in the Big Brother
B.A.: That question, I'm afraid, I'll have to pass along to a reality
TV fan. The only ten RTV contestants I even know directly are
last year's cast of "Big Brother," and I think they all made a
mistake by choosing to go on there. Is there a way of putting Paul
Romer, Mark Burnett, and a bunch of their colleagues in a BB
house for a few months?
RTVF: There is talk of a celebrity version of Survivor on the
horizon. Do you have the feeling that they won't be subjected to
quite the same experiences both on camera and off?
B.A.: I would say the stakes of a celebrity "Survivor" would be a
lot lower. Professional actors are a lot more attuned to
improvisation and role-playing, and they'll approach it as an acting
gig more than anything else. It won't be so much of a turning point
in their lives, because a lot of it--including being gossiped about
mercilessly--will be familiar territory to them. And you can figure
they'll be negotiating a king's ransom for their services. They'll
also be more guarded about what behavior they let their audience
see, because they'll be savvier, and more conscious of their
day-to-day image. Oh, and by the way, for all these reasons, I
won't be surprised at all if "Celebrity Survivor" flops.
RTVF: Would you consider a contestant having a mental break
down on TV right before our eyes good entertainment?
B.A.: I would consider it sick, a hundred percent, big-time,
super-deluxe, sick. But I think it comes very close to what a lot of
people, and, for that matter, the producers would love to see.
Actually, the producers would have mixed feelings about it,
because it would be sensational entertainment in the short run
and possibly a public relations nightmare for the longer haul. And
yet, the way things are going, I think they could probably
spin-doctor it into the equivalent of a knee injury in football.
RTVF: Why do you think these shows are so popular right now?
B.A.: I think people thrive on having both heroes and villains. I
mean, just look over the message boards for "Survivor" and you
see person after person putting real heart and soul into idolizing
some of the contestants and demonizing others. I also think
there's the same kind of voyeurism, with a touch of sadism, that
has people watching a fistfight for entertainment. I think these
shows play to all kinds of longings for gratification, but they do so
by making cheap commodities out of the people who are on
RTVF: Do you think Reality TV will last?
B.A.: Unfortunately, yes, at least for a while. Not all of them
equally. I think "Big Brother" in America got so discredited from
its first season (for all the wrong reasons) that I think it's going to
be hard to redeem it, though unfortunately, the producers will try
their damnedest and you can expect to see a real mental health
circus next season. It will still sink, but it will take one or two
houseguests down with it. Unfortunately. These other shows like
"Chains of Love" and "Boot Camp," well, too early to tell.
RTVF: You've heard the argument about people ‘choosing to go
on these shows’, and that they deserve anything they get. What
is your response to that?
B.A.: Yes, you're right, I certainly have heard that. Well, for sure, I
think the people who go on there are making a serious mistake of
judgment. And why they do differs from one to another. I think
some go on there thinking, "I like dog-eat-dog worlds as long as
I'm one of the dogs that do the eating." Humans are extremely
status-conscious, and by very definition, you can't have high
status without there being some underdogs for frame of reference.
But I don't think everybody who goes on is a thick-skinned,
competitive personality who just wants to win, because I don't
think the producers would get the drama they want if they didn't
choose some people who, even passing the psychological tests,
showed some potential for emotional vulnerability. If nobody were
emotionally vulnerable, at least 50 percent of the entertainment
strategy would be defeated. I might even put it closer to 80
RTVF: Is there any way to weed out the emotionally vulnerable
and still have a good show? By good, I mean one with the
popularity to come back again and again.
B.A.: I have my doubts as to whether a show with a full cast of
thick-skins would sell. I certainly don't get the impression that it's
what the producers are going for. I mean, paradoxically, if
everybody cares about winning and nothing else, what will they
have to fight about? What will they have to blame each other for?
It's when Person A was expecting X from Person B and gets Y
instead that you get drama, because the key element of drama is
conflict. You only have conflict when you have people who are
about something emotionally. So in a roundabout way, I guess I'm
saying, I would expect the producers to be afraid to screen out
emotionally vulnerable people, even though of course they do
screen out those whom the psychological tests consider
RTVF: What was the first reality show that you watched that
horrified you? Any particular episode?
B.A.: I was actually horrified by an article I read in the New York
Times last spring explaining the whole concept. Among other
things, I learned here that the first person voted off the original
"Survivor" in Sweden had committed suicide. The sickness and
danger of it just seemed so obvious to me.
I did watch some "Big Brother" in late August, to research my
play "Jocelyn." One of my first memories from there is the time
on the live broadcast when, as a prize for winning a contest, they
gave aspiring movie star Jamie the choice of a two-minute visit
with her mother or a big casting director. She chose the casting
director, of course, and the message boards were abuzz with how
evil she was for "choosing career over family," but to me it was
just so obviously a cheap trick by producers to play
cat-and-mouse with her to stir up some audience response. It
was like, Jamie took the bait and then audience members took
RTVF: If you could speak directly to a producer of a reality show,
what would you say?
B.A.: Excuse me, Sir, could you hold still for a...POW!
Seriously, when I was writing "Jocelyn," I was reading the
interviews with Paul Romer of "Big Brother" on the Web, and I had
moments of imagining he was in the room tapping me on the
shoulder, and I'd say, "Get your hands off me, you son of a bitch."
I don't like these guys.
RTVF: Do you think the shows should be banned?
B.A.: I have to say that the lesser of two evils is letting them be
legal. Banning anything sets dangerous precedents, and our
political culture depends heavily on a free press and free artistic
expression, for both entertainment and much needed criticism of
government and society. It's a matter of saying to a producer,
"You have the legal right, and I'll defend your legal right, but you're
a bastard for exercising that right."
RTVF: What do you think of the people that watch and
B.A.: Good question. Well, I'm certainly on friendly terms with
lots of people who do so, and I'm even inviting them to my play.
I'm not about to call them bad people. I do, however, hold the
opinion that they should think carefully about what they're doing,
because I think they're keeping something alive that would be
better off dying. And even more to the point than that, they should
look carefully at the way they treat contestants. I mean, through
Internet message boards and other media, people who in the
supermarket check-out line would never dream of shouting "Hey
look, there's the woman who married her stepson, what a whore!"
seem to have no self-restraint about doing exactly the same thing
in the company of millions. Maybe I'm wrong, but it tells me that
they feel exempt from some of the basic standards of civility and
decency when they're in the company of millions talking about
celebrities. They lose sight of the fact that celebrities are people
with feelings, just as much as their neighbor in the checkout line
is a person with feelings. It's dehumanization; it's
commodification: A person gets transformed into an object that
it's okay to punch and kick and jab for pleasure.
This interview is continued at Part Two.