“There’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years and my class has won.” —Warren Buffett
"I'm about to get my ass kicked by crawfish."—Steve-O
It doesn't seem unreasonable to imagine that, at the brainstorming session where the phrase "Not Reality. Actuality." was coined, one of the copywriters might have pointed out that these two words are synonyms. Apparently this observation was never made, or not with sufficient conviction, because this is now the official motto of Turner Broadcasting’s TruTV network, which specializes in reality programming. Viewers might anticipate a new threshold of lowered expectations for the shows featured on this network, based solely on its grammatically challenged motto, but one show on it, Killer Karaoke, was recently described by the New York Times as "the highest possible use of the medium and the most profound statement ever made about the human condition." This statement may be a bit of ironic hyperbole, but it contains a kernel of truth. Killer Karaoke is a window on the shrinking opportunities and declining fortunes of the American middle class.
The show combines two popular reality TV game show formats, the singing competition and the stunt challenge. It is essentially a mash-up of American Idol and Fear Factor. Like most other new reality television shows, the producers go out of their way to avoid cluttering up the show with original ideas. It is based on Sing If You Can, the 2011 British singing competition that celebrates performing while being subjected to extremely distracting circumstances, including having snakes draped on your body and being blasted with a high-powered mechanical storm simulation. Most of the concepts for the stunts on Killer Karaoke are drawn directly from Sing If You Can.
The contestants on Sing If You Can are well-known singers playing for charities, showing viewers the spectacle of celebrities experiencing various states of stress and alarm. Like American Idol or The Voice, the set design is cavernous and ostentatiously expensive-looking, and like those shows, the overarching feel of the show is one of inaccessible wealth, a wealth the audience is meant to voyeuristically ogle. The celebrity contestants on Sing If You Can may be amusingly stressed in the face of their challenges, but the audience is still very much meant to register them as betters existing in an untouchable universe of privilege.
Killer Karaoke takes this class structure and turns it on its head. The set is modest and the contestants read as average middle class karaoke enthusiasts, enthusiasts who hunger to be seen on television. The deal they accept by appearing on the show is startlingly bad. They are promised a chance to win "up to" $10,000. But it's clear that the final challenge of the show is designed to pay out an average closer to half that amount. The largest amount won so far is $7,800. Survivor offered the winning contestant one million dollars. Fear Factor offered $50,000. The deal has been getting worse and worse as reality shows have progressed.
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