TCS Daily

Reality Bites

By Sonia Arrison - March 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Fans of the "Bachelorette" or "Survivor" are now hooked on Operation Iraqi Freedom, the newest reality show to capture the world's attention. Technology has allowed a large cast of characters to play a part, with far-reaching consequences for all.

Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, "embedded" journalists traveling with American troops have been treating TV viewers to live first-hand accounts of the action. Using new technologies such as video phones, journalists have delivered the drama of war into the living rooms of millions. Viewers are glued to their TVs, but there's also a larger multimedia experience.

Military families discuss their fears with millions over the Internet. Protesters organize online and even stage "virtual marches" intended to swamp White House telephones, faxes, and email boxes with thousands of anti-war messages. Journalists in the war zone furiously write online diaries, and there's even a blog run by a man claiming to be living in Baghdad.

This is the first time the public has been brought so close to the reality of the war zone, yet somehow much of the coverage is eerily Hollywoodesque. One evening, when an anchorman directed an embedded journalist to turn his camera to the side window of the U.S. military tank so that viewers could see things better, suddenly the images on the screen seemed less real and more TV. And it's not just the networks that are creating this "reality TV" feel.

Protesters are using new technologies to register their complaints, just like they might when inspired to vote for their favorite contestant on "American Idol." When French web sites urge people to send pretzels to President Bush, one wonders if it's been forgotten that there are real principles and lives at stake.

Perhaps that's what invokes the initial reaction that grave subjects like war shouldn't be treated like another cog in the entertainment machine. There is the worry that viewers might get so wrapped up in the action that they could forget that, unlike contestants on "Joe Millionaire" who can walk away after the show, those battling in Iraq face real-world consequences.

It is legitimate to wonder whether America's love affair with voyeurism has finally gone too far, making the drama more important than the outcome. For instance, many were upset to learn that ABC recently started filming a new reality show called "Profiles from the Front Line" that will follow America's men and women in uniform as they go about fighting terror.

Perhaps, though, once we get over the initial shock (and awe) that technology allows us to instantly witness a precision war on the other side of the globe, the benefits will become a little clearer. For instance, there's the education value.

In the Daily Standard, Christian Lowe described ABC's "Profiles" as "a refreshing break from the over-sexed fame-hounds that populate the other reality shows. And, what's more, you just might gain a whole new respect for those who serve in the military and for how America is fighting--and winning--the war on terrorism."

The interest in political issues that's been encouraged through the multimedia barrage of war information may well help the public form more solid opinions in the future. There's also the comfort in knowing that with all the sunshine on military action, coalition members will do everything they can to keep civilian damage to a minimum. It is truly amazing that while the city of Baghdad is under fire, the electricity is still working.

It's no accident that reality TV shows gained popularity at a time when powerful new communication and surveillance technologies have become almost commonplace. Anyone who wants to be an exhibitionist has ample opportunity and the same can be said of voyeurs.

Given this, it should be no surprise that these new technologies are naturally applied to major societal events, making reality feel a little like TV. The key will be to recognize this is happening and keep it real.

Sonia Arrison is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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