I wonder sometimes…
Are we worth saving?
Some 40 years ago, after learning enough World and American history,
We are Rome.
Let me show you a timeline, not of politics or climate change but the thing I’ve studied.
1989 – COPS debuts
The show follows sheriff's deputies and police officers during patrols and calls for service. Serving of search warrants and prostitution and narcotics stings are sometimes shown. 41 states have had agencies depicted. It is currently in its 35th season.
1992 – The Real World debuts on MTV.
7-8 young people are chosen to live together in a new city together in one house while being filmed non-stop. It’s credited for launching the Reality TV genre. It runs for 33 seasons and ends in 2019.
1999 – Big Brother debuts.
Inspired by Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984, housemates are chosen to live together in a specially constructed home cut off from the outside world. They are continuously monitored throughout their stay by TV cameras and personal microphones. They vote for one member to leave each week until only one remains and wins the monetary prize. Viewers can vote as well. As of 5 August 2023, there have been 508 seasons of Big Brother in over 63 franchise countries and regions.
2000 – Survivor debuts
A group of strangers is dropped in an isolated location where they must fend for themselves while surrounded by a film crew. They compete in challenges, both physical and mental. Fellow cast members vote them out until one remains and wins $1 million. It has 45 seasons, and the 46th is scheduled to run in February 2024
2002 – American Idol debuts.
Copied from British and New Zealand formats, the show is a singing contest whose contestants are unsigned talents judged by a 3-person panel. The winner is determined by the viewing audience using a variety of methods. It runs continuously, with the exception of a 2-year hiatus. Winners receive a record deal with a major label. Some runners-up do as well. Several contestants go on to major award-winning careers. The show has been the most-watched series for nearly a decade. The enormous success of the show and the revenue it generated were transformative for the Fox Broadcasting Company and pushed Fox to become the number one U.S. TV network among adults aged 18–49 for eight consecutive years. The show spawned numerous singing competition shows and served as a blueprint for other competition-based shows. 2024 will be its 22nd season.
2009 – History airs its first Reality TV show – Pawn Wars
Originally pitched to HBO, the series depicts the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. It has 22 seasons, and a 23rd will air in 2024. The series represents a departure in programming for the channel, which previously had only shown series and documentaries regarding various periods and episodes in History. Today, the History Channel airs five scripted series, several pseudo-science series, a few historical series and documentaries, and many reality series. In a similar period, other cable channels such as, The Learning Channel (TLC) and Arts & Entertainment (A&E) similarly restructure their formats to favor Reality TV programming.
2016 – Live PD debuts
This series, a la COPS, runs for only four years on A&E. On June 10, 2020, the series was canceled in the wake of the death of Javier Ambler by the actions of Williamson County, Texas, sheriff deputies. The series producers destroyed footage of Ambler’s arrest. In September 2020, Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody was indicted and arrested by the county for evidence tampering charges after allegedly destroying video evidence of Ambler in police custody and in neighboring Travis County as the death occurred there. Two deputies were fired and charged with manslaughter in the case. At the time of cancellation, Live PD was the most popular show on A&E. In the month following its cancellation, viewership on A&E was down 49%.
In truth, reality programming is hard to define and even harder to pinpoint its beginning. There are more programs than those above. Many more. They all have one thing in common. They depict individuals or small groups and their personal lives, regardless of privacy concerns, for the entertainment of the masses. Some, such as competition shows, can be argued as benign. Those individuals want the chance to participate to win a prize. Others intentionally place people, while willing participants, in stressful environments or depict their foibles for the entertainment of others.
In ancient Rome, something similar took place.
The spectacles in ancient Rome were numerous, open to all citizens and generally free of charge; some of them were distinguished by the grandeur of the stagings and cruelty.
Romans preferred to attend gladiatorial fights, those with ferocious beasts (venationes), reproductions of naval battles (naumachia), chariot races, athletic contests, theatrical performances by mimes, and pantomimes.
Forty years after the invective of Juvenal (n. between 55 and 60-m. after 127), who lamented the republican sobriety and severity of a people who now aspired only to panem et circenses, bread and spectacles, Fronto (100–166), in almost the same words, described disconsolately the sad reality:
The Roman people are concerned primarily with two things, food and spectacles.
Indeed, the Roman ruling class considered it its primary task to distribute food once a month to the people and to distract them and regulate their leisure time with the free entertainment offered on religious holidays or secular occasions.
"Bread and circuses" (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metonymic phrase referring to superficial appeasement. It is attributed to Juvenal (Satires, Satire X), a Roman poet active in the late first and early second century AD, and is used commonly in cultural, particularly political, contexts.
In a political context, the phrase means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction, or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace, by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses).
Juvenal originally used it to decry the "selfishness" of common people and their neglect of wider concerns. The phrase implies a population's erosion or ignorance of civic duty as a priority.
I first noticed the similarity some 40-odd years ago. I wondered then how no one could see it. We are a modern Rome and, like our ancient sibling, distracted from the reality around us by the misfortunes, adventures, and competition of those desperate enough to show their skills, idiosyncrasies, and emptiness to their fellow man for the chance at fame.
Not all Reality TV is dangerous and destructive, certainly. Yet, how can we look at this trend and not see in them the spectacles of Rome? For let us not forget that Rome fell. Not entirely to outside invaders but also from within, as pandemics, weak and corrupt leadership, changing culture, and economic decline wrought their own forms of destruction.
The collapse of civilization does not occur overnight. It takes many decades for pressures to culminate in collapse. We are not there yet, but the signs are many and varied and screaming for our attention. Reality TV is just one, but it represents the management of the masses by design or accident that devalues many of the things we need to counteract the coming crisis – independent and critical thought, respect for ourselves and others, an awareness of the world around us as it is not as we wish to be, tolerance and impartiality. We are losing our capacity to think for ourselves not just because of Reality TV but through the disparaging of education and critical thinking.
Reality TV, like Donald Trump, is just a symptom of a culture ready to forgo its civic duty and distract itself with spectacle, with panem et circenses.
So, I ask you.
Are we worthy of survival as not just a country or culture but as a species?
Will we be the source of our own demise, or will we rise up and honor our better angels?