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SU community dishes on the hype surrounding reality TV

Reality TV's affordability and entertainment value inspires Syracuse television enthusiasts to make their own shows.

For Chris Xaver, it started early.

At two years old, the reality TV personality toddled up to the television set, arranged the antennae, and set the box to the correct channel. With a freshly filled bottle in hand, she promptly shushed everyone in the room.

PBS' The Galloping Gourmet was on and she needed quiet.

More than 40 years later, the Graham Kerr enthusiast is standing behind a cooking counter of her own as the host of the locally filmed show, The Sweet Life with Chris Xaver.

Browse the history of reality TV with our interactive timeline.

Growing up as a self-proclaimed “fatty” and restricted to a sugar-free diet inspired Xaver to share her healthy knowledge with others. Her goal: proving that nutritious meals can taste good, too. Thus, The Sweet Life was born.

“I know the internet is amazing and of course I utilize that as well, but television at the end of the day when people want to kick up their heels, that’s where they’re turning to,” Xaver said. “I love the opportunity to use that medium to change lives.”

The Tompkins Cortland Community College professor and Syracuse University alum not only uses her past broadcasting career for on-air talent skills, but also employs 30 students and staff from the program as the show’s crew, allowing them to gain live production experience.

While Xaver had to learn to give up control when it came to stirring a boiling pot of pasta to keep up her hair’s styled appearance, the Cortland-based TV personality still believes that maintaining the reality format of the program is key to its success.

“You have no idea when you turn on that food processor if it’s going to blow up or skip across the counter,” Xaver said. “Those are just the funniest moments when you can say ‘Dude, stay still,’ or when you’re crying because you cut the onion. In my world, it has to be unscripted because food is just that fun.”

Gettin’ real

Like The Sweet Life with Chris Xaver, the reality TV- based genre has been a dominating force in the television world. Hundreds of these programs are cropping up on the little screen every year, but while it’s difficult to remember a time that shows such as American Idol, The Real Housewives and Big Brother weren’t being broadcasted into our homes, jumping onto the reality TV bandwagon wasn’t as simple as it seems.

According to the director of The Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, Robert Thompson, the marker of reality TV came in the form of 1948’s Candid Camera.

“What Candid Camera did was truly new,” Thompson said. “The idea was that you would set up an artificial, contrived situation, put people without scripts into those contrived situations and turn on the camera to see what happens.”

The true granddaddy of reality TV as we know it today, however, was MTV’s The Real World. Instead of targeting the casual passerby, creators carefully inserted seven individuals with specific character qualities in a controlled setting to watch how they’d react. Publicly. Despite the show’s popularity, other networks didn’t recreate a similar situation until the summer hit Survivor aired eight years later, and with that, the damn finally broke.

“These were the kind of people that we don’t normally hear voices from and what they were saying wasn’t coming from writers who had written what was going to come out of their mouth,” Thompson said. “It was interesting, and funny, and stupid. And stupidity plays a big role in this.”

The uprising

Sitting in one of Chuck’s Cafe’s scuffed up and painted booths, four Television, Film and Radio students discussed the second episode of their new show, You Betcha.

The game show was chosen as the TRF production class’ main project and will be shown on Orange Television Network. The element that pushed the pitch over the edge: incorporating a reality TV segment into the program.

“The beauty of reality TV is that people can relate,” writer and camera operator Natalie Sarmiento said. “They’re at home watching these people answer these questions, and at the same time they’re answering these questions. That’s how people can get into it.”

The crew scouted Marshall Street just minutes after learning their pitch won, and immediately began finding people to film for the interviews. They were asked to answer questions based on the show’s theme of the night, and the contestants would have to bet on the chance that the random stranger knew the answer. For casting the contestants, the group used tactics established in The Real World and tried to find people who would be both quick on their feet and would be the most interesting to watch.

Despite the time crunch, You Betcha co-creator and producer Jillian Markowitz said that it wasn’t difficult to find people to audition for the show.

“People are much more willing to be on a reality TV show than something where they have to memorize lines,” the junior said. “It’s hard to find talented actors, and let’s be real — the majority of people on reality television are untalented actors. Very easy to find.”

Here to stay

Watching and connecting with the characters on The Real World/ Road Rules Challenge is part of what inspired Sarmiento to apply for the TRF program. Whenever the weekly program aired, all pressing assignments and responsibilities were pushed aside. That hour was designated to the MTV show.

“I’m just obsessed with it,” she said. “These people are so enjoyable to watch and anybody can get into.”

While agreeing that it’s a popular genre and was for integrating reality-based content into her show, Markowitz disagrees with Sarmiento’s assessment. For the aspiring television writer, not only is reality TV intruding on her field of interest but is also damaging to the way we take in information as a culture.

“My parents watch all the crap,” Markowitz said, referring to The Real Housewives. “They watch it in the middle of the house and I’m forced to listen to it, and I feel my IQ dropping every time that I do.”

But Markowitz admits that while she has viewed some reality TV shows, she hasn’t really given it a chance—too afraid that she’ll eventually fall victim to its charms.

Thompson has heard similar claims about the negative effects these shows have on society, but brushes them off with an opinion of his own. Rather than The Bachelor showing young audiences what love should be like, he said that it actually is the direct opposite of what a young girl is taught to aspire to. To him, Disney remains most influential in this area.

And whether this influx of available reality programming continues to be a trend, Thompson’s opinion on the genre’s popularity is unwavering.

“I said it in 2001 and I’ll say it again now,” Thompson said. “They’re cheap and they’re going to be here forever. Maybe not as many as right now, but they’re never going away.”

The history of reality TV

Candid Camera was noted as one of the first shows within the reality TV genre, which now includes popular programs such as Survivor, The Amazing Race and Jersey Shore. See an expanded timeline of TV milestones that features video, pictures and more.


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