There’s reality TV, and then there’s reality

From Newsday’s Opinion section

‘Move that bus!’ helped shape kids’ values, but Snooki is always a click away

Most of my 11-year-old’s favorite TV fare is, to put it mildly, not on the top of my must-watch list. But since she was about 6 years old, Maya and I have shared a passion: ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” We’ve sat side by side on the couch, bowl of popcorn and box of tissues between us, as the “Extreme Makeover” design team, local construction companies and volunteers built homes for more than 200 needy families around the country.

Our family tradition will be derailed tonight as the show “moves that bus” for the last time, ending its nine-season run.

Although each episode of the show relied heavily on scripted material designed to tug at the heart strings, the result —anew home for a family struggling through illness, loss of a loved one or other tragic circumstance — was genuinely worth watching. Despite the often over-the top schmaltz, the show conveyed the kind of message we want children to learn: People can overcome adversity with the help of their community, and there’s no better feeling than being part of the solution.

The lesson hit home in a real way when Maya and I volunteered on an “Extreme Makeover” project in East Setauket in June 2010, when Long Island’s Alure Home Improvements took on the role of lead builder for the seventh time (the contractor has helped with eight shows in total). So many Long Islanders asked to volunteer that some had to be turned away. (And make no mistake, it was the volunteers and the Alure team who did all the work. I was there every day and didn’t see host Ty Pennington holding a hammer unless the camera was on.)

“Extreme Makeover” is one of the uplifting examples of reality TV, a category that’s exploded in the last decade. But there’s a dramatic difference between shows that inspire, educate or reward talent and those that have created an obsession with pregnant teenagers, privileged housewives and talentless pseudo-celebrities whose marriages are shorter than Newt Gingrich’s.

A confession: I have a guilty pleasure in the world of reality TV. It’s “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” admittedly a real waste of time that’s as contrived as it gets. Most of the people I asked — folks I find to be intelligent and educated — confessed to at least one such favorite. They may watch independent films and listen to NPR, but they’re also addicted to “Mob Wives,” “The Bachelor” or one of the worst of the genre, “Fear Factor,” which recently featured contestants submerged in a vat of bovine blood retrieving cow hearts with their mouths.

Watching reality TV is, for the most part, pure escapism — it’s unlikely viewers would venture to repeat such a stunt at home. And who can blame us for wanting a break from actual reality? Although many news programs air their fair share of sensationalized, unreal-sounding reports, the stuff that’s unquestionably real — unemployment, global warming, wars — is enough to make anyone want to spend some time chillin’ with Snooki and the Situation.

But there’s a big difference between a grownup’s escapist experience and a child’s take on reality when it comes to these shows. A study published last fall by the Girl Scouts found that girls who regularly watch reality TV are far more likely than those who don’t to believe, for example, that gossiping is a normal part of girls’ relationships and that it’s in girls’ “nature” to be catty and competitive.

My daughter hasn’t yet watched the kind of shows that promote those harmful messages. For as long as I can, I plan to guide her toward ones that, like “Extreme Makeover,” convey positive ideas. But the reality is that my ability to monitor her will grow remote as she hits her teen years. Like all parents, I’ll have to keep the faith that I’ve done a good job of teaching her about what really matters, and what’s really real.