Virginia Heffernan's Reality Check for Reality Television

“Reality television needs reformation,” says Virginia Heffernan, whom Ad Week recently called “the best media writer at The New York Times.” An admitted fan of low-rent reality shows, Heffernan drops the gloves in her latest Op-Ed, declaring the genre damaging to lives, the TV business, and the public trust. She argues that there needs to be a clearer divide between what is real and what is skewed. 

“Like game-show contestants,” Heffernan writes, “most reality participants lose. They lose what they came in with—their marriages, their families, the cultural capital, their professional reputations, their actual money, and in some cases their freedom.” The suicide of Russell Armstrong, a so-called “villain” on The Real House Wives of Beverley Hills, is central to Heffernan's point. Just before dying, he told reporters and friends how the show exaggerated his marital, personal, and financial troubles. This ethical descent in public entertainment has reached rock bottom, says Heffernan. “It’s time for performers on reality shows to receive clear compensation; to get training in performance before appearing on air; and to have their onscreen personas distinguished for viewers from their real identities. The shows, too, need to be flagged as fiction for viewers.”

Heffernan, who changed the way TV shows are reviewed when she was the critic for the Times and Slate, still writes about television, most notably her New Yorker profile on Tina Fey. Her focus lately has been on the way that older mediums (television, recorded music, even information stored on filofaxes) have been subsumed by the new medium of the internet. What is lost and what is gained when content, made for one medium, migrates into another, different medium? As a speaker, Heffernan provides an original perspective on the shifting media landscape, and what’s at stake for all players. Her keynotes have been sought out by everyone from content producers to universities to the cultural arms of governments. 

Her book, Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet, will be released in 2012.