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The end of stories

6 April 2013

Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkoff

I’ve been reading a book. Ok, I’ve been reading several books, as is my habit, and switching between them as I please. But for the moment, I’m mainly reading Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. I was lucky enough to see him speak in New York the other month, and he made some very interesting points regarding the history of mass media. As it happens, they coincided with an idea for a blog post I had a while ago, so I thought I might as well use the new info from Rushkoff’s book and get this post done already.

Reality shows

In the old old days, back in the 1980s, they still played music on MTV. You might not think it now, but it was actually a 24 hour channel showing nothing but music videos, with the odd interview thrown in here and there. It was the real Music Television channel.

Remember these? Ah, those were the days...

Remember these? Ah, those were the days…

We all know that’s not been the case for quite some time. Nowadays it’s mainly showing 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom and Jersey Shores. Reality shows. No scripting – well, not much, anyway – and heavy editing to capture the drama.

Obviously, reality shows are not an invention of MTV. We see them everywhere nowadays, and there are in fact so many of them that there are dozens of shows for each and every letter of the alphabet. We have America’s Next Top Model, Big Brother, Celebrity Circus, Dad Camp, Extreme Makeover, Farmer Wants a Wife, Gay, Straight or Taken?, Hell’s Kitchen, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Jackass, Kid Nation, Little Miss Perfect, My Shopping Addiction, Nanny 911, Osbournes, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, Real Housewives, So You Think You Can Dance, Temptation Island, Undercover Boss, Victoria Beckham: Coming to America, Who Wants To Marry My Dad?, X Factor, You’re Cut Off! Nothing on Z, though. Odd. Perhaps there’s an opening for some kind of Zebra Whisperer show? Or Zombie Dad or something?

Humiliation TV

"Did I do it? Did I get you to stop channel hopping?"

“Did I do it? Did I get you to stop channel hopping?”

There’s something more to it than just capturing moments of the real world though. Almost all of the shows listed above add another element to the mix: humiliation. Whether it’s about getting people to do things they loath or if it’s about exposing people in embarrassing situations, humiliation TV is all about capturing the viewer’s attention by using increasingly shocking material.

Ok, fine; so the current reality television programming is appealing to our most base emotions. That’s hardly news. But reading Rushkoff’s book, I’m beginning to understand the reason behind this trend. And it starts with the end of futurism.


Up till just recently, we were all looking into the future. We had dreams of colonising the planets, creating utopian societies with flying cars and friendly people dressed in white coveralls. But even on a more mundane level, we were leaning into the future. We invested in stocks to see them gain value over time. Even at the turn of the century, we were still trading on the future values of companies and services. An idea’s worth wasn’t what practical use it had today, but rather the potential use it could have in the future.

Now you see it, now you don't - the future values of dot-com companies.

Now you see it, now you don’t – the future values of dot-com companies.

But that future didn’t really happen, something I’ve mentioned in my post The future isn’t what it used to be. And just after the millennium celebrations had died down, we seemed to suddenly stop and take a good look at what all those promising dot-com companies actually were worth today. And realised that is was… well, not much. The dot-com crash quickly followed, and we stopped leaning into the future and focused more on today.

The end of stories

So what’s this got to do with the fact that we’re currently inundated with reality TV shows? Well, Rushkoff argues – and rather convincingly, I might add – that the end of futurism is linked to a growing mistrust in narrative. Back in the days when the future looked promising and people, companies and governments all proposed future rewards for investments made today, we were also told stories. In almost every aspect of life, we had stories telling us what to believe in, what to think and what to feel. From news channel features to advertising and government propaganda, they all explained things in easy-to-follow stories. And they were all modelled on the old Aristotle’s dramatic structure, consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

"Heh. Heh heh." "Huhuh huhuh huhuh"

“Heh. Heh heh.” “Huhuh huhuh huhuh”

But with the growing mistrust in the future, we tended to focus more on the moment, and so complex story arcs were deemed too slow and cumbersome to warrant our attention. This gave rise to the non-story shows like Beavis and Butt-head, where the point of the show was the experience, not the story.

When the major networks started to realise what was going on, they panicked and in a knee-jerk reaction started to produce (or should that be “produce”?) reality TV shows in order to stop people from channel hopping away from potentially boring and complex stories.  And to be able to compete, they all made their shows a little bit more dramatic – or humiliating – to make sure that it would grab and keep our attention.

What’s next?

Luckily this is not the end. We won’t have to suffer increasingly more humiliating shows forever. As the management of the major networks’ understanding of non-narrative increases, the current – rather immature – reality shows will fade and get replaced by new types of show.

What kind of shows this will be, I don’t know. But I’m cautiously optimistic and hope they’ll be more interesting than watching some semi-celebrity being forced to eat maggots in a jungle somewhere. The future present really can’t come along fast enough.

P.S. I highly recommend you to read Rushoff’s book ‘Present Shock‘. It’s well written and easy to read and full of interesting ideas and observations.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 April 2013 23:34

    I do watch some reality shows (mostly Amazing Race with Amy and cooking competitions with my dad), but I do really miss scripted dramas. There are a few decent shows out there, but it’s not like I remember it being before – where I’d wring my hands trying to decide what to watch since I had so many options. [sigh]


    • 6 April 2013 23:59

      I don’t hate reality shows per se, only the humiliation part. And that’s probably down to my hyper-sensitivity for embarrassment. I just can’t stand watching people being made fools of.

      I do agree with there being less of good story-based shows around these days though; which is most likely why I can’t remember when I last watched something I liked on telly.


  2. 6 April 2013 23:42

    My wife and I watch Duck Dynasty. One of the stars of the show calls what they do “guided reality”.
    I think what happened with the reality show craze is that those are cheaper to put on.You don’t need writers to invent a plot as you described in the post. And the business bottom line has been the be-all and end-all for the corporations that run networks these days.
    There are still some scripted shows that have a devout following. Mad Men. Downton Abbey. And any number of vampire/zombie shows. None of those are terribly original by my way of thinking. It could be I am just getting cranky in my advancing age.
    I also think the ever expanding number of networks has further diluted the quality of programming.
    None of this is to take issue with your excellent post. You, as always, make wonderfully interesting points.
    Thanks for giving me something to think about.


    • 7 April 2013 00:06

      It could be a financial thing, but I’m inclined to think they would have been just as crass and economical in the 80s as they are today. No, I think it’s more a desperate attempt to keep peoples’ attention than anything else. It’ll be interesting to see what will come after this, though.


  3. 6 April 2013 23:57

    When cable tv, with “500 channels and nothing on” became common, cheap filler was needed. “Reallity” shows don’t need writers, sets, costumes, makeup, or professional actors, only cameras and editors. Cheap, cheap, cheap.

    There is still a strong demand for well-written stories with high production values, and HBO knows it, as demonstrated by their very guarded distribution of their better series.

    The end of “the future” is another another story: the end of the economic boom in the U.S. in the 1970s. Some propaganda kept the future alive in the faux recoveries of the 80s and 90s, but the noughties and teenies have offered little hope for a future. You’re welcome to inform me about how much what I see in the U.S. represents the rest of the world.


    • 7 April 2013 00:12

      I think it’s a similar situation in most of the Western world. We’re down to focusing on the now, and it has some interesting consequences. In a way I appreciate the common sense attitude of not believing in gold at the end of the rainbow, but we could do with some kind of vision for the future. A new, modern future.


  4. 7 April 2013 01:38

    I like some reality shows, too, but the less-humiliating ones. I like The Amazing Race because I like to see the locales (and sigh about going there someday) and I like the shows where they make things, like food or clothes, because I think creativity is awesome. But otherwise, I get bored and/or upset about what’s happening.

    The end of stories is the most evocative title and the saddest idea, isn’t it? Because we’re a society built on stories. We had stories told around campfires and stories written on cave walls, and then theater, and books, and movies, and television. The end of them is so final and signals a lot of things wrong with culture.

    I don’t want to live in a world without stories. It’s not a place I want to be. I think stories are our way of keeping magic alive.


    • 7 April 2013 03:44

      As I said to sj, I don’t mind the odd reality show either, I just don’t care for the humiliation part.

      And aw, sorry to make you sad. I don’t think I mean that all stories will disappear, but we certainly have less patience for them nowadays. It’s the pressure of the present. Everything needs to happen now.


      • 7 April 2013 03:55

        Not SAD, sad. Melancholy, maybe. Worried for the future generation, who don’t understand the appeal of fantasy over the drudgery of the mundane.

        I like things now, but I also love delayed gratification and the joy that comes from a great reveal. I hope we never lose that completely.


        • 7 April 2013 06:52

          Yeah, I’m kind of torn. We’re finally getting somewhere technology-wise, even though it sometimes still feels like living in the Dark Ages. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s actually getting any better. Ok, a lot of us have it better than ever before, but it doesn’t look too bright for the long term future, unless we actually get our act together.

          But either way, just because our traditional way of telling stories might diminish, it doesn’t follow that fantasy and imagination would disappear as well. It might just happen that a new way of telling stories evolve.


          • 7 April 2013 07:00

            What would that new way be? And am I going to be left behind? Because I am a very good storyteller, Andreas. I use facial expressions and hand gestures and EVERYTHING. I am very engaging. I do not want to be left behind in the dust of all the technology. You will have to keep me informed so I don’t become obsolete.


            • 7 April 2013 10:23

              Although Rushkoff has a point, there are other things going on. First of all, as we know, there is more telly than ever, and there is an emphasis on cheap – and the reality shows are that.

              HOWEVER, I think he is using this as a convenient way to make his point. He ignores the growing fan base for the long story arc. I refer to the rise of the Box Set, and it’s attendant long story arc multi series high quality tv show. Sure, they are expensive to make, but you can export them and loads of people buy the box sets even if the country they are in hasn’t aired the show. For me, it started with Deadwood and Carnivale, although the BBC had always made such things as Brideshead Revisited, but I think that by the time The Wire came along it was already known that as well as being avid weekly followers, a lot of people were buying the box sets and watching episode after episode all at once. This is unprecedented – TV made for the very long story arc because viewers are known to do marathon sessions. Lesser telly just doesn’t stand up to it, and that’s okay if they don’t want to sell DVDs, but far from being about the present moment, these stories are epic in a way which harks back to Trollope and Tolstoy.


              • 7 April 2013 10:31

                I don’t think it’s supposed to be an either-or scenario, rather a shift of focus. We still plan for the future, but we don’t live in the future but rather in the now. We still tell, listen to, read, write and watch stories, but the focus is shifting more towards present activities than what happened a long time ago or what will happen later.

                Also, Rushkoff’s book is very focused on the American society, and although a lot of what is said is also true over here in Europe, I do think we have a slightly different outlook on things.


                • 8 April 2013 21:19

                  I have only read the intro and the first chapter because it was free on the internet – does he factor in the massive uptake of mindfulness?


                  • 9 April 2013 04:43

                    To be honest, I don’t know. I haven’t finished the book yet, but as I only get a few minutes of reading time a day, I though it better to publish this post now rather than sometime in the future.

                    He does mention the importance of syncing to – rather than override – all our different body clocks though.


                    • 9 April 2013 08:44

                      I only ask because ‘present moment awareness’ through the growing popularity of mindfulness is becoming more mainstream. I doubt it will make good telly, but it’s certainly how some people are dealing with ‘the shock of the now’. So what happens when you apprehend the moment? Time becomes elastic, and the present moment spacious – something which, again, counters his assertions.


                    • 9 April 2013 22:30

                      I’m not so sure it does counter his assertions, but I’ll have to finish the book before giving you a final answer. He seems pretty open to far out ideas, though.


                    • 9 April 2013 22:42

                      I will read more of it if I do start the PhD – I will have to catch up with that sort of writing. I was quite entranced at first but found his style rather reflected what he was complaining about – rather choppy. But maybe it improves as the book goes along.


                    • 10 April 2013 05:07

                      Is his writing style choppy? Perhaps, but I hadn’t noticed. I’m bound to notice now though. Cheers(!)

                      That sounds like an interesting PhD.


                    • 10 April 2013 09:36

                      I think so. They wanted to give it to me but there hadn’t been enough applicants and they were told to readvertise. I won’t have to do the whole application again, but I can tinker with my proposal. The department offering it is Built Environment, so he “suggested” I read a certain chapter of a certain book for my rewrite. It’s an odd conceit and a very cut and shut kind of an idea – they want something on the “Sustainable Digital City” which is, of course, problematic right there, in that the internet is by nature not located in the same way as a city. I have a take on it which is very ‘soft’ and based on metaphor and navigation. I think it’s mine unless someone comes up with a good proposal which is more concrete. Here’s the link


  5. 7 April 2013 14:57

    My response to the crap that is being aired is to turn the television off. I rarely watch television these days and do not watch any reality shows at all. If I can’t watch a good story with a decent plot line – then I’m sure I can find a book that has one.


    • 7 April 2013 18:35

      In a way, even though the huge range of cable channels might have facilitated the low-grade TV content, the next evolutionary step – shows on demand – could do the opposite. If we don’t have to follow schedules to watch our favourite shows, we wouldn’t have to put up with watching crap whilst waiting for our favourites to broadcast. Perhaps TV on demand will free us from ‘filler shows’ for good?


  6. 7 April 2013 23:50

    You mention REALITY TV. I was part of it in the 1980’s, was on a show called “The Love Connection”, and believe it or not, we had to sit with a writer BEFORE we went in front of the cameras. (So in a sense, it was scripted.) They edited much of what I said & made me look like a jerk! (Television and I did not make a love connection, neither did the guy that the audience thrust upon me.)
    Reality TV is not reality at all. Much of it is scripted, and the people they show to us are not amateurs, they are often well seasoned ACTORS. I have a degree in Theatre Arts. When I went to auditions, I acted like a complete “air-head”, and the producers loved me. I would name the other shows, but to say the least, it would be embarrassing.
    For myself, Reality TV is a complete and total waste. After viewing it, I feel BRAIN DEAD.


    • 8 April 2013 08:11

      It’s as I suspected then. A lot of those shows do look scripted. Yes, they’re probably less ‘reality’ than ‘instant drama’.


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