Jay Talking: What the SEA Games taught me about human nature

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEEST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Today, I thought I'd take the time to share with you some of the latest innovations in the ever intriguing world of reality television, in the hope that it can also teach us something about human nature and the SEA Games.

I became interested in reality TV recently, thanks to a show just launched in the United States called The Briefcase. It sounds innocuous enough but the show has been universally condemned by critics for shamelessly exploiting the less fortunate.

Needless to say, the show is a huge hit.

But before I get into the weeds of what is good and bad about this luggage-based show, I figured it would be useful to take a step back and consider how we ended up here in the first place.

Contrary to popular belief, reality TV is not a modern invention. In fact, in the early days, all entertainment was effectively some form of reality TV. For instance, Survivor was a big hit in prehistoric days and nearly everyone was part of it. Granted, the show then was a far cry from what it looks like now. There was no voting back then or different factions trying to backstab one another.

In those days, the only type of backstabbing involved sharp objects being lodged into someone's back. The basic premise of the show was that you would leave the cave every day and try not to get eaten by dinosaurs. As prehistoric men were also starting to get better acquainted with their primitive tools, a series of programmes were developed that can best be described as people hitting one another over the head with rocks and falling down.

People hitting one another over the head with rocks and falling down would prove so successful that spin-offs of this show continue to be around today, including America's Funniest Home Videos and cable news.

In fact, although things became more sophisticated and production values increased, a large chunk of reality TV history is dominated by shows similar to Survivor or people hitting one another on the head with rocks. The formula would hold throughout early history and the Middle Ages. The Romans had gladiators fight one another or gladiators fight lions before a seated audience.

In the modern era, reality TV started out with shows which showed us nice things, such as people winning a fridge for guessing how much it costs. However, such "game shows" eventually lost popularity and got shunted over to less popular day-time slots.

What took over were reality TV shows with genuine shock value. It started with the likes of Big Brother that just locked a bunch of people in a house and filmed them 24 hours a day. Remember how people used to lament that Big Brother was the end of the world as we knew it?

Little did anyone know we would eventually end up with Naked And Afraid or The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. And that brings us to The Briefcase, the show which is burning up the Internet in the US. The basic premise of the show is that they take two families struggling to make ends meet, give them each a briefcase full of money and then exploit their desperation for our entertainment.

The way they do it is to tell each family that they can keep all the money, share some of it with another needy family or give it all away. Both families are oblivious to the fact that the family they are asked to consider giving money to has also been given a briefcase full of cash.

Both families are then given information about each other and even taken on a tour of each other's house. Towards the end of each episode, we get to see them struggle with trying to fill the genuine needs of their own family, while also not wanting to look like a greedy person on national television.

I watched an episode of this recently (for research purposes) and I must say I was captivated by it throughout. I initially thought that the premise was offensive and manipulative, but when I gave it a chance, I realised it was also insulting.

To be fair, although The Briefcase is horrible, it isn't alone in its horribleness. Those with a penchant for these things can also look up Sex Box, where couples are invited to have sex in an opaque box before a live studio audience and then emerge to have a chat with therapists; or Born In The Wild, where women who have access to modern healthcare decide to have their baby in the middle of a jungle with no doctors around.

I swear I am not making up any of these shows. These are real shows which have been on air.

Now, what does any of this have to do with the SEA Games? I'm getting to it. The whole reality TV thing was basically me trying to make a case that we are horrible people who derive enjoyment from watching other people suffer. I mean, how else do you explain how a multi-billion-dollar reality TV industry blossomed around our desire to see bad things happen to other people?

Oh sure, I agree that we like seeing good things happen to people as well, but I contend that we would much rather watch people fail. And the SEA Games has provided me a way to put a number to that assertion.

Many of you are no doubt aware of the divers from the Philippines who did some comically bad dives during the contest. That video had been going viral until one of them came back with the perfect retort.

"Why share our failed dives when you can share the dives that we did well?" one diver asked on Facebook while putting up a video of the dives they pulled off flawlessly.

The video of failed dives has now been watched about 1.6 million times. The video of the successful dives? About half that.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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