In March 2006, an employee of ABC emailed a handful of network affiliates about casting for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition with a note from the show's casting agent. "We are open to any and ALL story ideas," says the note, referring to the types of family the show would like to help, "and are especially looking for the following".
The note goes on to specify a shopping list of afflicted families and individuals that the makers of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition wanted to focus an episode around - parents diagnosed with ALS, a family with a child suffering from progeria, persons suffering from congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis ("let me know if one is in your town!"), families with a child suffering from muscular dystrophy, families who have lost a child to a drink-driving tragedy ... the list goes on.
You can read the whole message here. It makes for a sickening read.
Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes watching can probably tell you that reality television seems to subsist on sob stories*. Isn't it funny that nearly every singer on The X Factor or The Voice has some kind of emotional back story to tell? It feels as though there isn't a single contestant who hasn't struggled with bullying or loneliness or losing a loved one or with fighting for their voice to be heard.
I'd love for someone to walk onstage at The X Factor and explain that they've had a wonderful childhood, loving parents, a good time at school, and are just getting on with life. Zero times has that happened.
We know why they do it, too. The best way to get viewers to tune back in to a show is to get them emotionally invested in the characters on screen. It works for comedy and drama; part of the reason we get so attached to scripted shows is because we get attached to characters and their stories. We want to know how things turn out for them.
Reality television shows do this too, except they're doing it with real people - and because they need us to get attached to their "characters", they use these sob stories as emotional shortcuts. The sadder the story, the more it might tug at your heartstrings, and the more you might feel invested in the characters and the show.
It is this thinking which led the casting agent on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to send out such an offensive message in search of stars. And it is this thinking which led TVNZ to set their new season of Mitre 10 Dream Home in Christchurch. Well, Kaiapoi.
The people of Canterbury have suffered plenty. And my heart goes out to them.
But the idea of setting a home renovation competition in Canterbury hasn't sat well with me since it was announced - not because the people of Christchurch don't need the help, but because I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Christchurch earthquakes would be the main focus of the early going on the show**.
It all feels a little exploitive to me. As one reviewer noted about mid-90s talk shows, "we exploit the emotions of innocent people for five minutes of vague amusement. Cameras zoom in on faces that are shocked, angry and upset so we can see the full extent of their anguish." That quote, in context, referred to Jerry Springer. But now it applies to every reality show. And it all contributes to what sociologist Stjepan Mestrovic called the "McDonaldisation of emotions".
I'm all for setting shows in the Canterbury region, don't get me wrong. But turning the very real terror of the Christchurch earthquakes and the ensuing ordeal families in the region have been through into a sob story for an hour-long Mitre 10 commercial seems to cheapen and minimise the emotional toll the disaster took on the region.
And I know you thought you were helping, TVNZ, but you really aren't.
(*) Well, sob stories and dramatic pauses.
(**) As comedian Jamaine Ross noted on Twitter, "How about instead of filming a TV show about 2 families building houses, you just don't film a TV show & build 6 whole houses" ... too logical, it could never work.