I'm a pretty big fan of reality television. Or "reality" television. I like to claim that my primary interest in it is as a cultural phenomenon, but I know that's not completely true. The truth is that I just find it totally fascinating--partially in the same voyeuristic way that everyone else does, but also as a chronicle of all the petty, mean, and utterly banal human weaknesses that manifest themselves when uncomfortably nestled in a world where everything and everyone is surveilled. I realize, of course, that the onslaught of reality TV programming since its inception with MTV's The Real World in 1992 has bombarded us with everything that is imperfect about the human-all-too-human. but those of us who have fallen prey to the rubbernecking draw of reality TV have also seen, at moments, much of what is great and hopeful and promising about our little corner of the animal kingdom as well.
But, alas, reality TV ain't what it used to be. Journalist Kate Mulcrone recently went to "Reality TV School" in New York City, which apparently "teaches wannabe reality stars how to be better versions of themselves." (She chronicled that experience in an article entitled "What I Learned at Reality TV School".) The fact that such a "school" even exists is testimony to the dramatically modified sense of "reality" that such programming is now trying to capture and convey. We all know that programs like The Real World became formulaic after its first few years of success--and that formula (beautiful people + alcohol + semi-manufactured conflict = good drama) has been copied by almost every other reality show that depends on the confluence and conflicts of personalities to make its stories. (The best/worst example of this is probably VH1's family of shows that invlove former Public Enemy hype-man Flavor Flav. It all began with Flav's appearance on The Surreal Life 3, where he fell in love with Brigitte Neilsen, which spun off a new series chronicling their love-that-was-not-meant-to-be called Strange Love. The heartbroken Flavor Flav subsequently sought to find his "true" love on three separate seasons of a dating show called Flavor of Love, which itself spun-off into another 3-season dating show focusing on one of Flav's former paramour's called I Love New York.) Anyway, back to the reality TV school...
One of the things the "students" at reality TV school learn, according to the article, is that everyone must decide "whether or not you want to be the person who consoles the crier or the one who bags on her." As far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty important decision in real (not just "real") life, too. My best friend from college is the Executive Co-Producer of the reality show America's Next Top Model--and we also got our undergraduate degrees in philosophy together--so I've talked to her several times about the various ethical issues raised in and by reality television. For all the bagging the smarter and more cultured among us like to do on these kinds of shows, I think that reality television provides a lot "teachable moments" ripe for imparting moral and ethical instruction. And, unlike the "moral dilemmas" conventionally used in philosophy classrooms-- like standing at the switchboard of a railway and having to decide whether to send a train barelling toward 50 innocent children or your mother-- the dilemmas represented in reality television are ones with which students are more familiar and, many times, those dilemmas are closer to students' actual expreience. That is, these real-world dilemmas seem, well, real-er.
The fact that reality television is built on the premise that everyone and everything is surveilled makes explicit Sartre's intuition that all morality is dependent on the (real or imagined) presence of a "third." Obviously, since we're talking about real (and not imagined) surveillence here, this kind of programming gives us the added opportunity to say some things about the way our collectivities are organized and monitored, too... including our moral and ethical collectivities. I think a course on the ethics of reality TV could be a great course, though it would almost certainly make this infamous list.
[One last thing: a colleague of mine, English professor Marshall Boswell, gave the Convocation address last year, in which Boswell focused on an interesting (and quite funny) play on the similarities and differences between The Real World and the real world. You can watch a recording of that address here. Just scroll down to the middle of the page. It's a really, really good speech.]