Is it true to say that nowadays the choice offered on television is little more than a wide selection of trivial rubbish?

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Nowadays, with the availability of satellite television and cable, we are confronted with a wide gamut of choices, many times expanded from what we had before. In the past, all one could obtain on television was the news and some local channels. We are no longer limited and restricted to a handful of channels on the goggle box, but a myriad of exciting, interesting programmes.

With that said, this “wide selection” has been criticised as being more than “trivial rubbish”. I find this assessment rather harsh and underserving. Trivial though this slew of new shows may be, they are certainly not rubbish. When one calls something trivial, he means to say that they are not serious, and that they are light or even light-hearted in nature, with no serious bearing on our existence. I concur with that judgement. However, devaluing something to the point of rubbish is too extreme, deeming it totally worthless when it does have its merits and benefits.

Perhaps the main culprit to blame for this quick and unjust accusation is the reality television genre. From big names like Survivor and The Amazing Race to smaller ones like Fear Factor and The Apprentice – these shows have had a major impact on the television scene. Reality television shows appeal to both the producer and the consumer. Mark Burnett, whose brainchild was Survivor, remarked that his series was essentially “unscripted drama”. This was a boon for cost savings, without needing to hire scriptwriters, directors, make- up crew and so on. This was an innovative yet intelligent way of filming which soon spawned many other mutations of the premise of taking ordinary people from their lives and giving them fifteen seconds of fame without having to worry about actors’ salaries. Such a revolution in the television industry can hardly be considered “rubbish” and not worth noticing.

The genre is quickly dismissed because apparently it shows “the bad side of human nature”, sometimes celebrating moral dubiousness, as in the case of Survivor. It is also trivial because frankly, nobody cares if someone can stuff a mouthful of mealworms in their mouth for two minutes. It is entertainment that preys on human weakness and iniquities, magnifying for the world to see (literally).

However, this is of value to the watchers as well. It is typical of humans to be voyeuristic, but few people laugh at others’ inadequacies to make themselves feel better. If these people willingly put themselves up for shame and humiliation, then who can be blamed for this generation of shows? This is us, after all. It is part of our pop culture, so ingrained in our consciousness. It may be “rubbish” by ethical standards of exploitation, which are relative in the first place, but it is surely worth something for defining our age and being a reflection of this era’s psyche.

Furthermore, to focus on only the negative aspects of reality television is not giving it a fair chance. The Amazing Race, though displaying shades of conniving with the recently incorporated “Yield” rule that lets one team stop another team from racing through no fault of their own, is a much better alternative to the traditional travel documentary. It is a new and improved version, with humour and adrenaline to boot. Positive qualities are also championed, like good navigational and physical skills as well as the ability to adapt to foreign customs and culture, not allowing xenophobia to shock and stop. In the bigger picture, does this not help raise greater awareness for an international community where everyone is linked? Rubbish does not educate and enlighten like reality television does.

In the past, drama shows were mostly melodramatic and veering towards being termed as soap operas. Plots were contrived clich├ęd and rehearsed. This made them not only trivial, but rubbish too. These days though, we get to enjoy smart, witty shows that are engaging and intriguing.

Besides that, they no longer just revolve around the scandals of feuding families over the decades, but actually do bring up some pertinent issues whilst cavorting in make-belief and fantasy for an hour every night. This is clearly evident from the suppression and desired emancipation of the Desperate Housewives that live on Wisteria Lane, as well as the forensic detectives who allow us to vicariously solve murder mysteries in Crime Scene Investigation.

Although the television dramas are not real, inspiration was gleaned from everyday life and we can all learn a thing or two about the character sand their situational plights, applying whatever epiphanies we gain to our lives. If we gain from this, it cannot be considered rubbish.

Following a similar train of though for the production of reality shows, we should consider the example of Channel NewsAsia’s creation, Get Real. This new show follows host Diana Ser as she delves into underground Singaporean issues like prostitution, homosexuality as well as teenage self- inflicted harm. Granted, these are not new problems and thorny issues, but to actually surface and bring to light taboo topics in a relatively conservative environment such as Singapore with a slanted local context is a breakthrough. This gungho attitude to confront societal matters and teach the populace about what they would rather hide and conceal is laudable and commendable. Never before has there been a show that attempts to be acute in its discussion. Even though it does not always provide clear-cut solutions, it clears up misunderstandings and dispels misconceptions, hardly qualifying it to be rubbish or trivial.

In fact, the only kind of programme that could arguably be defined as “trivial rubbish” would be Music Television or MTV for short. It is essentially people moving to music – nothing really serious there. It also champions buxomy babes and the revelry in plenty of flesh that is more than could be considered normal. Thus it sets itself up for the argument that moral decadence and the like is glorified, what with the smoking and heavy bumping and grinding in videos that reek of pulsating sexuality. To encourage such behaviour that pushes the standards (and cleavage) of our society even lower is surely rubbish. However, even this is tempered by songs and videos that buck the trend and appeal for transnational solidarity in terms of disaster such as the 9/11 tragedy which spurred many artistes to come together to say “what’s going on”, the video which filmed them unwrapping black binds emblazoned with different kinds of prejudice from around their eyes.

In conclusion, television’s choices have been raised, allowing people in Singapore to access CNN, BBC, and Discovery Channel, for example. Though some depravity is magnified, it does not destroy the inherent worth of the onslaught of shows nowadays, for they do allow us to reflect and see ourselves and others in a different manner, even whilst entertaining us.

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