Modern television: an offering of dopiness and cruelty

The late American comedian Julius ‘Groucho’ Marx once quipped: I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.” He died in 1977. I can only wonder what he would say in response to the shallow, exploitative, insular free-to-air nightly offerings people willingly flock to en-masse today.

I recently saw an advertisement for Channel Nine’s new Wednesday primetime darling: Life on the Dole. The British program, which Nine seemingly became enamoured with in the wake of SBS’s success with Struggle Street, casts a critical eye over the realities of living off the dole in the UK. Judging by the promos, the show looks to offer anything but a sympathetic take on the lives of these ‘bludgers’.

There’s a tattoo laden woman declaring that she can spend her money however she likes, while other snaps showcase people engaging in childish pranks and games in the streets. Hardly a great way to spend taxpayers’ money. But of course, this is exactly the impression the producers want to leave. The advertisement is designed to stir up feelings of outrage, and no doubt, the premiere on Wednesday night won’t disappoint.

One has to question the social responsibility of the producers at Channel Nine for airing a show that blatantly seeks to exploit and demonise those on unemployment benefits. This, at a time when Australia is currently experiencing record youth unemployment and a low job vacancy rate that renders 6.2 percent of Australians out of work with few genuine job prospects.

Airing the show here will likely be successful for two reasons, and both of them aren’t admirable. The first, is that our emotional indignation will stir, and that’s great for audience engagement. The second, is that it’s classic schadenfreude. Had a tough day at the office or on the site? Don’t worry, there’s people worse off than you out there; just tune in at 8:40pm. The end result being a deficit in basic empathy, which reduces us as a society.

The show won’t place the onus on its audience to consider the 80,000 homeless in Australia that don’t have access to what we take for granted. Nor will it lead viewers to ask critical questions about what educational and social programs could do to better help these people. Instead, it will paint them as the other, as an entity devoid of humanity that seeks to exploit our collective wealth like a parasite.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for individual responsibility and I generally take a dim view of those unwilling to ‘have a go’, as our treasurer pointedly put it, but I also understand that not everyone is dealt the best hand in life. There’s usually a story behind the worn face we’re led to judge on national television.

The rot doesn’t stop at shows about dole bludgers though, sad to say. In fact, it seems that free-to-air television is doing its darndest to insult social progress. Step up Marriage at First Site, another gift from the high-brow couch huggers at Channel Nine. The show has rightly been subject to a social media backlash over its shallow premise that uses a dating expert to arrange a marriage between heterosexual (of course) couples that match ‘compatibility’ criteria.

In a country where pompous traditionalists promote the status quo of heterosexual marriage for the purpose of maintaining its sanctity, how outrageously offensive to both straight and gay couples that a show would so obviously seek to demean the institution of marriage for the sake of entertainment.

There’s couples out there that have been denied the right to wed for seventy years, being told that somehow their relationship means something less, yet the ratings juggernaut assures a green light for people to celebrate their nuptials without having met.

The offensive dross will be complemented by a cornucopia of winter offerings ranging from The Bachelorette, The Bachelor, Gogglebox, Bogan Hunters, Hoarders, and Tattoo Nightmares, among others. Not satisfied with that? Subscribe to Foxtel for a nightly insight into the world of Melbourne’s frostiest women on The Real Housewives of Melbourne.

None of these shows serve any purpose other than play at our vanity, pride, and voyeurism. The adverse cultural product of our small screen addictions should not be underestimated. Former US Federal Communications Commissioner Nicolas Johnson once said that “all television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching?” It’s a question we should desperately be asking.

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