Testing the Limits of Reality TV

SAT essay question about trash television sends a mixed message: Should kids study or watch junk?

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Mar 17, 2011  |  Updated 9:30 PM EDT
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GTL (gym, tan, laundry, for the uninitiated) hit Miami for the second season of MTV's charming cheese-fest Jersey Shore. Snooki, The Situation and the gang rode the show's enormous popularity to Dancing With the Stars appearances, book deals and general global dominance.

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Snooki is to higher education as hot is to: A. cold B. freezing C. frozen D. insert your own superlative/punchline here.

We don't know whether to chuckle, be aghast or applaud the news that a significant portion of students who took the SAT this past weekend were asked to write an essay that basically boiled down to "Reality TV: Good or Bad?"

Perhaps our mixed reaction is a reaction to the mixed message the essay topic sends: We ostensibly tell kids their time is better spent studying than watching junk TV, then hit them with a junk TV question on the most important test of their lives.

The answer to whether the essay topic represents a cynical dumbing down of the SAT or a stab at relevance might be best found in the backlash, which, as The New York Times notes, includes online complaints from some test takers. “I don't watch TV. I had no clue what I was talking about,” one student wrote on a College Confidential comment thread.

The bottom line is many of the students who otherwise were most prepared for the high-stakes exam may have been the least quipped to write that essay. Or, as New York Daily News columnist Joanna Molloy aptly put it, "One-third of America's college-bound kids became the 'Biggest Losers.'"

The trashier entries in the Reality TV genre probably are better called "Loser TV" – even if the message is the quickest way to celebrity is playing the fool in a pop culture that fails, in very un-SAT-like fashion, to distinguish between fame and infamy (see "Shore, Jersey"). Still, keeping up with various Kardashians, spoiled housewives and others more well known for silly behavior than for using their brains might say more about us than them.

We hope the students who got stuck with the essay question at least made distinctions between such tacky, voyeuristic fare and solid competition shows where talent and hard work can lead to rewards.

News of the essay topic comes as we’re increasingly being subject to lame bids to shock us, even in more traditional entertainment realms. The Times pointed out in a front-page story Wednesday that three of last week’s Top 10 songs contain variations on a notorious four-letter epithet. Two planned ABC shows contain a common slur of women in the working titles and CBS, of course, broadcasts the euphemistically named, "$#*! My Father Says."

We're not the word police, and appreciate the value of provocative language. But employing strong language solely to grab attention is pointless and further inures us to the mindless coarsening of the culture.

There was plenty of cursing and other bawdy language – much of it hilarious – during the late night (10:30 p.m.) roast of Donald Trump on Comedy Central Tuesday. The least funny part was the terrible performance by Snooki's "Jersey Shore" pal, The Situation.

In fact, his bombing made some headlines during a week when the world fell into an even bigger state of crisis than usual. Maybe we need the diversion. Or maybe we need to take a closer look at a popular culture where a young man who has parlayed life as a walking stereotype into big money gets notice for ineffectively insulting a fellow Reality TV star who is mulling a run for president and has the cash to do it.

Sounds like a potential topic for next year's SAT...
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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