The Indifference Curve

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How Reality TV paved the way for Game of Thrones

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(Warning: spoilers for like, everything on earth follow.)

Twice now, in Game of Thrones, the audience of home has reacted in horror as one of the series’ many leads was cut down in cold blood.  They were shocked, dismayed, and upset.  But secretly? They were also exhilerated.  Narrative conventions thrown out the window. Complete unpredictability.  “No one is safe.” Author George R.R. Martin has said that he’s written these books as if writing historical fiction where the audience doesn’t know the outcome.  It’s one thing to be watching a war movie where we know the Nazis lose.  It’s quite another to be watching one where you have no idea who’s going to come on top.  But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen audiences blindsided by a show turning the tables on their expectations.

On May 31, 2000, Survivor premiered.   As it aired its initial slate of episodes, viewers steadily increased, and a pattern emerged in the editing.  Viewers were given a logical reason for why someone was voted out, and the editing was sure to make viewers understand why the group did what they did, even if they didn’t fully agree with.  In episode 1: Sonja got axed because she was old.  E2? BB, cause he was obnoxious.  3- Stacy-Annoying. 4-Ramona- Sick.  5? Dirk, too religious.  6, Joel, too chauvinistic.  It was essentially a social morality play, one where viewers didn’t know the outcome.  But in episode 7, the rug was pulled out from everyone when the merge turned the game individual.  Gretchen, the castmember who you’d most want by your side in a real survival situation, was voted out because they perceived her to be the biggest threat to their chances to winning the game. There was suddenly no moral compass, no justification given to the vote other than “you win or you die.” Audiences were stunned.  Shocked.  Outraged.  And they came back for more, as ratings for the finale nearly doubled that of Gretchen’s boot episode.

Long before Game of Thrones came on the air, Survivor introduced audiences to the world of “reality TV.”  But a better name for what Survivor is would be the “Serialized Game Show.”   Survivor penalizes the viewer for missing episodes, because each episode is intrinsically linked to the events of the prior one.  Although you could usually pick up what was going on, missing an episode of the show was like skipping a chapter in a book.  Shows like Survivor trained audiences to make TV shows a habit, rather than something you could flip on and off at any time, like Law & Order.   They also expected more out of their audience’s attention.  Because they’d start with a cast of 16-20, it was important for the editors to be able to help the audience learn who these strangers were as they started battling each other in the TV arena.  Shows like Survivor helped change people’s perception of what viewers were willing to tolerate.  They required viewer investment and rewarded those viewers with thrills you simply couldn’t get elsewhere.

There’s a reasons Survivor fan fics always suck:  the real thing is just straight up better.  Survivor is a show that kills a character every episode.  Each episodes builds on the tension and dynamics established in the previous episode, and each episode closes with a tense (or edited-to-be-tense) vote where the audience is shock/relieved/indifferent to find out who’s getting their head chopped off.  The very nature of the game- it’s unscripted nature,  is what makes the show so compelling.  Arya stark states that “Anyone can be killed”, and on both Game of Thrones and serialized game shows, that’s definitely the case.  In the case of reality TV, history is literally unwritten, and in Game of Thrones, it’s written as though it weren’t even written.  We learn to understand the motivations of each of the characters, even if we don’t like them, and when the audience’s hopes are dashed, broken, and bloodied, we always understand why. (In the context of the story.)The very things that made a show like Survivor work helped pave the way to show people that it really could be possible for audiences to fall in love with a series that tends to kill off the audience’s favorite characters! 

However, over the years, some of these shows have taken steps to try and insure that a happy ending almost always occurs, and have hurt themselves in the process.  Later this week, I’ll have an update into how some of these evolutions have actively worked to actively make reality TV competitions worse, and how I think the situation can be rectified.


Written by kirblar024

September 17, 2013 at 12:53 am

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