22 April 2005

reality-based semantics

Reality TV (and its viewers) have been a casual source of language data for me for some time now. I have attributed this to the fact that the participants are not actors and the actual dialogue is (usually) not rehearsed script. (An exception is beginning to recur in the Apprentice, where Donald Trump often has "a meeting" with associates prior to catching up with the candidates in the show). Note that "script" is used here to be distinct from "push-producing", which is a non-linguistic manipulation of the outcomes of a competitive reality series.

Last night's Survivor contained an example of the middle ground, in that there was a linguistic quibble that ultimately changed the outcome of the episode. The background is that the (weak) Janu was a drain on the merged tribe, and clearly not winning material, and also clearly was excited at the idea of going home. Meanwhile, the highly competent and fiercely competitive Stephenie was in danger of being voted out - there is a culture of tolerating mediocrity in Survivor, and eliminating strong competitors, to strengthen one's chances down the road. It can make it frustrating to watch, honestly.

So aware of this particular situation (and of the phenomenon in general) was host Jeff Probst that he initiated the topic at tribal council (the voting-out venue). Steph's emotions indicated she knew she was headed out and was angry that her drive was also her demise. Janu, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction and a sense of completeness at having made it this far. By the way, Jeff likes competition. So Jeff says, "Janu, how different is laying down your torch from asking your teammates to vote you out?"

Now, this is basically a semantic question: is the one act equivalent to the other? Jeff managed to convince Janu that it was the same thing. I say they are different - quitting entails removing the tribe's power in deciding who goes. Had Janu asked to be voted out, they may have chosen Stephenie anyway. Instead, Janu leaves with the satisfaction of preventing a tribe (she disliked) from getting its way.

In Survivors past, people have quit and have asked to be voted out, and Jeff has reacted to both situations with disgust. This time, he seemed to be asking for it (Janu had not apparently considered either approach yet). So there you have it: push-producing, with linguistic manipulation.

[The last time I discussed reality TV, I characterized it as un-reshot and unscripted. Some correspondence on this point ensued, in which a reader suggested that some amount of re-shooting and scripting does transpire. Scripting, it could be argued, appears in the form of push-producing, in which the outcome of events is partially and subtly manipulated by the producers.

Push-producing does happen, but I have tried to maintain that it's not the same as scripting. So I updated the post on phonoloblog to clarify the distinction between scriptedness and contrivance. In a scripted show, the actor is given sentences to perform, but in a merely contrived (and unscripted) show, all the actor (or participant) has is a topic. Push-producing doesn't change this.]

[update: this item suggests that "quitting" (on the part of the participant) and "coercion" (on the part of the producers) are both too strong as terms to apply to the exchange.

If memory serves me, of the three previous participants who left voluntarily, two were players who quit the all-star series under stressful circumstances (Jenna M and Sue). The other (Osten) is the only cast member to have left vountarily by giving up. (one other player, Mike from season 2, was injured and evacuated).]


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