Just how much reality is too much?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 21, 1999

The executives at CBS think they have a great idea for a new TV show: Find 16 willing participants, send them to a deserted island for six weeks and make them forage for food and shelter.

The last one left is $1 million richer.

Oh, and they’re going to tape these contestants 24 hours a day.

Email newsletter signup

Meanwhile, over at the FOX television network, they’re going to follow a group of high school students with a camera while they make it through their senior year.

(Unfortunately for them, there will be no million-dollar winners here.)

I can’t decide which, from a viewer’s standpoint, would be more frightening: Watching ordinary people struggling to survive on a deserted island or watching ordinary teenagers struggling to make it through a suburban high school.

The 16 ‘Survivor&uot; contestants will choose at the end of each show who gets kicked out. For some people, I guess it’s not unlike high school and its proclivity toward cliques.

The other similarity about the shows is that both concern me tremendously.

First of all, I found high school stressful enough without having to worry about cameras and millions of television viewers.

So I was a little surprised that the administrators at this particular Chicago high school would allow their students to participate in such a project.

”Sure, we had concerns,” Susan Benjamin told The Associated Press. Benjamin is an assistant superintendent responsible for Highland Park High School, which is featured in the show.

”We wanted to make sure that he wasn’t out to expose anyone in a negative way, to humiliate anybody,&uot; she said. &uot;We were very concerned about that. He did convince us. We hope it’s true.”

Well, if the idiots of my generation who have been exposing themselves on MTV’s &uot;The Real World&uot; for the last few years are any indication, Benjamin doesn’t have much to hope for.

My question about all of these reality shows is this: When did other people’s &uot;real&uot; lives become so interesting that they deserve to be on TV?

Somehow I just don’t think people are going to be themselves when they’re being followed by a camera 24 hours a day.

What’s wrong with that old tradition of making up stories and developing characters? Shakespeare was pretty good at it, and he didn’t have to follow anyone around with a quill and scroll.

And if real life is so interesting, shouldn’t we be out enjoying our own real lives, instead of watching TV?

I admit that on a rainy Saturday afternoon there is something frighteningly hypnotic about a marathon of those &uot;Real World&uot; shows on MTV.

But it makes me feel wrong, having watched these poor strangers humiliate themselves because they’re only 22 and they don’t know how foolish they will seem in 20 years.

At least the new &uot;High School&uot; series will have the pedigree of a serious director behind it – instead of MTV executives.

Documentarian R.J. Cutler believes &uot;High School&uot; is &uot;a great opportunity to teach other people about what it is like to be a teenager today.”

I hope he’s right.

Because as a journalist, I believe everyone has a story to tell.

Just not 24 hours a day.

Kerry Whipple is a senior staff writer at The Democrat. She can be reached at 446-5172, ext. 262, or by e-mail at kerry.whipple@natchezdemocrat.com.