Reality TV Isn’t Real But It’s Shaping Reality

Spoiler alert: Reality TV isn’t real.  Big surprise!

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.) used to have a business show called Venture.  I found it fascinating.  And I have as much interest in business as I do in Jai Alai (I’ve never watched Jai Alai).

Each episode featured several stories, mini documentaries about entrepreneurs as they tried to bring their idea, product or dream to market.  It was fascinating.  An engaging story, a challenge, an adventure.

Reality TV Isn't RealThat show is gone.  Now we have Shark Tank, Dragon’s Den, and other scary animal names, where hopeful entrepreneurs with big dreams compete to convince a panel of wealthy personalities to invest.  I find the series fascinating.  But agitating.  A downer.  I wasn’t sure why.  Is it because so many of the dreams and ideas are shot to pieces by the investors?

There was the pizza box that folded, origami style, into a dozen different variations, for serving slices, to a container to store leftover pizza.  It was amazing.  No takers.  I have to say that leftover pizza is not something I’ve ever seen in my house.  In fact, I’ve actively made sure that there was never any left over…

Anyway, it seems like very few of the ‘wannabe’ business owners get any support.  Or if they do, they really compromise their share.  The rest are blown out of the water.

When I mentioned the show to a person I know who has done that type of investing, ‘angel investing’ is the term he used, he shook his head dismissively.  He’d seen the show.  And he said the same thing my father said whenever I’d watch a war movie, “It’s not like that.”

I haven’t done a lot of angel investing, but people I know with experience aren’t tearing people down if they don’t think the idea is viable.  They offer suggestions and some guidance.  They want them to succeed.  And you don’t demolish people because no one, even the smartest investors, knows anything for absolute sure.

Pink KittyWhen you consider that Hello Kitty is a multi-billion dollar business, and TotallyADD is not (it’s more multi-thousand), you can see how unpredictable the world is.

“Angel Investors, good ones, offer advice.  But they aren’t cruel or mocking” he says.

That’s what I hate about the show.  It’s sold as ‘Reality TV’ and yet I learn it’s nothing like reality.  It’s fine that Law & Order always ends with a trial, whereas almost all criminal cases end with someone cutting a deal. That’s ‘Reality TV’.

I’m obviously not the first person to point out that ‘Reality TV’ has about as much to do with reality as, say, The Red Green Show (Now that was quality television.)

But what puts me off is that Reality TV always involves a competition.  No wonder there are no more great science shows.  How do you have a competition between Black Holes in Space and Volcanoes?

Five or six years ago, I was actively selling TV show ideas. Or trying to sell them.  Some really great ideas.  Network executives and production companies thought they were great.  But they made it clear that the ideas would never fly.

‘Can you make it into a competition?’

I wanted to do a documentary about the Sherman Tank, the main battle tank of the American, Canadian, and British armies in WW-2.  The tank my father took in to combat against Nazi tanks in Italy. The message of the show was that it was a terrible tank design… Inadequate… Unsafe… And dreadfully easy to defeat.

When I outlined the idea and the approach I would take, it was quite emotional.  When I finished my pitch, there was a pause and then…

‘What if you had it race against another tank? That might make it saleable.’

I listened for a while, and then left saying I’d think about it.  I didn’t think about it.

I’ve written about Reality TV in the past, but with each passing year I’m less interested in television because everything is a competition.  And in my experience, in the television industry, in making comedy, and now in making videos, books, and audios about ADHD, is that most people are not competing.  It’s not dog-eat-dog. It’s not about winners and losers.

We’ve found that doctors and authors are generous with their time and knowledge.  They are eager to share what they know, whether they have a book to promote or not.  They are fans of each other. Offering their support and advice.  Collaborating.  Our videos are certainly proof of that.

Maybe TV is reflecting the wider world.  Is there a sense that the world is in trouble and we will have to compete for increasingly scarce resources?  I think there is, but I also think that it’s not the truth.  Just a fear that is being fed by almost every movie and TV show going—from Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, to the dozen or so end of the world, post apocalyptic films that hit the big screen every summer.

The term block-buster has come to mean office blocks and apartment blocks being blown to smithereens.

Or maybe TV is reflecting the economy, where even the top 1% are falling behind and it is only the 1% of the 1% who are holding their own, or getting wealthier.

ADHD TeamIn real life we survive by cooperating.

But in movies there’s an explosion and people run away screaming.

In real life people rush to see how they can help.

On television someone is the weakest… All the aspects of survival of the fittest and Darwinian dog-eat-dog competition.  The fact that Darwin meant ‘fittest’ in terms of being able to ‘fit in to the world’ is lost on most people. They assume it’s a winner take all.  But if there’s only one species that wins, and it’s us…  Anyway, that’s a separate concern and I don’t have answers.

The point is that while movies and TV have never been about ‘real-life’, they were not pretending to be ‘reality.’

Forget the competition.  In society and in nature it’s about cycles, connections, the ‘circle of life’.  Not the ‘pyramid of power’.  Or the ‘100-yard dash of life’.

While seeing budding entrepreneurs have their dreams demolished makes riveting TV, as does footage of airline crashes and tsunamis, in real life what matters to all of us is when dreams are accomplished.

I’d rather be part of that reality.  And hopefully we’re a part of making that happen for you.

Green DragonLook, Dragons are not real. They’re mythical. So is most television.

What I’m constantly being reminded of as we move forward with TotallyADD and all the new stuff we have coming, is the amount of collaboration, the number of people who are involved, who contribute, who want to be part of it and add to it and make it all work.  You cannot believe how inspiring this is.

Again and again I am reminded that there is no self-made successes.  Yes, the idea of the documentary was mine.  ADD & Loving It?! and TotallyADD happened, through the contributions of scores of people.

Which sounds like a tangent from ‘reality TV’, but it’s not.

My concern is that TV presents a distorted image of the world, but it’s so distorted, we don’t even see that it is any more.  Worse, TV can be like a drug to people with ADD. It holds us.  Hypnotizes us.  Uses up years of our lives, filling the hours with noise and fury and stimulation to arouse our desires, our sense of outrage, and a false feeling of community. And more and more, fills us with a vision of a world that is constant struggle, and only the very, very best succeed.

With ADHD you tend to have the odd setback or failure.  (Insert roars of laughter here.)   Things don’t always go as planned.  For example, my plan to have things well planned. We are already hard enough on ourselves when things don’t go as we hoped.  It’s already too easy to fall down and never get up again.

Cause as they say, “Opportunity only knocks once.” Right?


In my experience you always have more chances.  Opportunity will knock again.  Sometimes, looking back, I can see it was knocking continuously for years and I didn’t hear it.”  Trust me, we get new chances, and when things don’t work out, sometimes it’s good, it wasn’t meant to be.  Remember your first crush?  Or that job you got fired from?  Wish you still worked there?

All I’d suggest for now is that there is little evidence that watching a lot of television is good for you, and considerable evidence it actually lowers your happiness and leaves you feeling more anxious. You can choose to do whatever you like with that information.

For a start, how do you feel after watching the news for 30 minutes?  Compared to say, sitting in a park or café watching people pass by for the same length of time?



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8 Replies to “Reality TV Isn’t Real But It’s Shaping Reality”

  1. It’s not just the competitions; it’s the eliminations. TV is so full of elimination that it’s like one big toilet.

    Even the shows that claim to be helping people are actually just humiliating them. One of the worst offenders is “Canada’s Worst Driver”. In one series of it, a driver was mocked and portrayed as being monumentally stupid and unaware. On the second-last episode, she was given a vision test. Surprise! She was extremely near-sighted, and needed glasses! Once she got her glasses, her driving improved exponentially. So, why wasn’t she given that vision test on the very first episode?

    Most of the drivers I’ve seen on that show (and I can’t stand more than about 5 minutes of it, because it’s so cruel) seem to have ADHD symptoms and/or symptoms of some other physical or mental health issue. So, why don’t they give all of the drivers a full physical and mental health assessment in the first episode? Oh, right. Because they couldn’t make fun of them if they knew they were physically or mentally ill. It’s much more fun to just assume they’re morons, and humiliate them because of it.

    But the absolute worst are the “prank” shows, that humiliate random victims. There are a couple of Australian DJs who could tell them that, when you pick on a random victim, you have no way of knowing whether that person has a physical or mental health issue that could cause them to react very badly. If they do, then whatever happens is entirely YOUR fault.

    TV today is so nasty that it’s no wonder I love watching my DVDs of old shows and commercials. It’s amazing how commercials of the 1950s-1980s were so upbeat. Even the music in them was peppy and positive. Today’s commercials are all about being tough and ugly and destroying the competition. A sad reflection of today’s society.

  2. yes, watching TV can turn you into a zombie. When I came back to Canada for vacation and saw how much dreck is on cable now, my thought was that TV companies are simply desperate. They are the ones who are competing – for idiots who will watch their boring drivel. There are no good ideas left for television – it just gets raunchier, uglier, more vulgar, etc. Let’s all go and sit in the park and watch people (or the shopping mall in winter, haha.) Much more interesting!

  3. Why are these wealthy personalities choosing to be on the panels of Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den? Because it is the easiest way to make big money and the broadcasters pay for their first class expenses. The wealthy personalities do not have the talents of a Patrick McKenna or a Gordon Pinsent. The wealthy panels are not great writers or actors.
    In Gordon Pinsent’s autobiography Next he wrote about how he got to a point in his career where he would only choose parts he enjoyed. There was this show he loved to perform on where everybody worked together to be funny. That show was The Red Green Show created by Steve Smith and Rick Green.
    Totally ADD was also created by Rick Green where many talented people come together to help others.
    All students are our future.
    Wayne ( My reality TV is CFL football) McFarlane

  4. Love your blog, as always, but this one was spot on. So true and a sad commentary on society’s appetite for “entertainment”. We have turned the corner and the path seems irreversible. I say turn it off and stop accepting poor, let’s face it disgusting, media mush. Thank you for an insiders perspective.

  5. This is a really good essay on what has gone wrong with TV. ‘Unscripted’ TV is cheap to produce – you don’t have to hire writers or actors who can actually learn their lines – but I hadn’t realised that it also relies on cheap shots, humiliation, fake competition, and watching people squirm on screen for their emotional impact. The only half-episode I ever watched of Dragon’s Den had a woman dressed up as Snow White trying to sell the investors on a pet toy she had invented. The pet toy looked pretty good, but I wondered, why on earth does she have to embarrass herself by dressing up as Snow White to sell it? I understand now why the tag line of “The Apprentice” was “You’re Fired!” It’s all about humiliation.
    I cancelled cable years ago and relied on DVDs and, these days, Netflix, where you can choose scripted TV and shows with connected stories and good acting, things worth watching. (Really miss Red Green btw! I will never, ever forget curling with frozen turkeys; or that hilarious sketch about moving a house down the highway, and they’d forgotten the power lines, and I laughed so hard I nearly peed myself.) I also miss Mr. Dressup, and the Friendly Giant.
    I miss kindness.

  6. I totally agree. I barely watch TV if not for cartoons every once in a while and I’m little interested in TV in itself. Because of this, I never find anything to talk about with my “friends” from high school, who are deep into pop culture, TV shows like the Kardashians and big blockbusters. (I spend a lot of time watching what some people call “educational” videos.) I’m just not into this.

    You say these shows are all about competition, I see this as some form of compleasancy as well. People like to feel as if these shows justify not trying unless you’re la creme de la creme. Because it “reminds” them that they’re not part of that inner circle of successful people and, if they are, it’s only because they’ve been “approved and invited”. Most of these “friends” started to settle down at 25 or so and don’t try anything that they don’t know about while I just seek new experiences all the time. I rarely see people question the statu quo. They just accept it because the “almighty” said so, but then again, maybe it’s just my inquisitive nature and me being a rebel. I learned to love my life by being edgy and shaping my own vision; I don’t see a lot of people watching TV who could say the same…

  7. Thank you for this article, Rick. I’m in the film/tv industry and as such, I totally see your point. Although I cannot watch less television due to my profession, I can make more stories about humanness. This, I will focus on.

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