Opinion — Our unethical consumption of ‘Human Interest’ TV

As the great David Foster Wallace once said, “Television does a lot of our predatory human research for us.” The shut-ins watch the other shut-ins be shut-ins through a one-way apparatus, void of self-reflection and full of content to scrutinize, all produced and perpetuated by an exploitative culture that reinforces communal rot disguised as alienation. 

Watching reality TV is associated with loneliness because it is synthetic social interaction from the comfort of a Dorito crumb couch. As one sits there on their crumbly throne of false superiority over the obese, the addicted, and the emotionally stunted shoved in front of a camera, they decay deeper and deeper into a mirage of denial.

Many of these desensitized lonely people in front of the TV are equally viable subjects for cultural inspection. “Human Interest” TV, to use Hulu’s sugar coated label on their streaming platform, suggests that people are simply interested in ogling at each other, that there’s an innocent fascination with witnessing others suffer. But by design, these shows are not created for ethical consumption.

This ritualized shaming exists on channels like TLC (The Learning Channel, of all names) and Lifetime, which feature shows like “My 600-lb Life” and “Hoarders.” These shows follow different individuals each episode to highlight their struggles with varying forms of addiction. The show “Intervention” on A&E explains in their episodes that the subject’s willingness to participate in film production is because they were lied to about what the show is. More informed individuals like those on “My 600-lb Life” are invaded by cameramen over the course of years to track their weight loss progress, and “Hoarders” are strategically filmed to be villainized despite the production’s front of unbiased helpfulness.

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Why is there a desire for these programs? Who watches these shows to pity? “Human Interest” is categorized as education, according to TLC’s title. Is it to non-directly learn empathy?

Is it to connect with one another without having to go outside? These programs have tens of seasons because of positive feedback from consumers. These shows would not be renewed over and over if we weren’t watching them.

Why do we watch people slowly kill themselves, publicly humiliate themselves, and exploit themselves for potential cash the network will give them for their contribution? We know why.

While watching a “Human Interest” show, we do want people to succeed. The episodes are designed to have arcs– staged or not, there is a constructed flow of wins and losses that captivate the audience. But that alone is not enough to spend twenty-minute chunks of time on their content. In trailers for episodes, channels lure viewership in by making a highlight reel of shocking events that create a narrative about an individual.

It isn’t about the truth, it’s about what makes good TV. It’s assumed that someone would only agree to be documented at their lowest with enough incentive. According to A&E, producers pay for the cleanup cost and mental health support for people on “Hoarder.” This can amount to thousands of dollars, and with the poverty featured on these shows, it’s implied that they didn’t really have any other choice to get better.

If producers create shows for money, and the “contestants” go on the shows to save money, what do the viewers have to say for themselves? The supply only exists in correspondence to the demand. We watch film crews exploit people because their suffering is entertaining. It’s not educational, it’s not empathetic, it’s ruthless judgment in a controlled environment.

While a person wades through sedimentary layers of their own waste, completely detached from reality and sixteen months away from the last time they had a toilet clean enough to go to the bathroom in, we laugh. We say, “how disgusting.” When we watch the socially reclusive addicts fall deeper into their habits, day after day, we sit and watch for hours and hours, plugged into our illusionary vice saying, “that could never be me!” and “How could you get that bad?”

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