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Switching on the television, there is a good chance of finding yourself three hours later trapped in front of the flickering and pearly-white smiling face of a young presenter showing (more than telling) you the story of an “average” person, fleeing his or her “average” life, and you know: something great is going to happen to this poor guy – what could be worse than being average? Usually, we call this genre of entertainment “reality TV”; or, in society’s drunkenly honest moments, trying to signal the truth elegantly while barfing it in your face: “scripted reality TV”. While it is easy to judge and ridicule this (post)modern form of entertainment in its often ideologically loaded, denigrating, chauvinistic and emotionalising form, something about these shows tickles people at a sensitive spot.

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Image: flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Do the omnipresent reality tv programmes have more in common with myths than we think?

They seem to help us overcome the easy feeling of disconnectedness from the world that accompanies our brain’s flickering in perfect harmony with the colourful pictures in front of us: a story is being told, a myth created, the world is transformed and sometimes a hero is born. Despite its new form of consumption and production, entertainment that satisfies this human desire for stories is not a new phenomenon. It seems to be neither dependent on a flickering black box nor a pearly-white smile: a wooden chair and grandma’s toothless mouth had the same effect in pre-modern Europe.

In a certain way, our imagined Saturday-night couch adventure has its parallels in earlier times. In pre-modern Europe people would listen to stories passed on from one generation to the next, passed on through times and at some point written down – saved for (or maybe from) history. They may not have sat on a couch eating crisps, and the story was not interrupted by advertisements for “the super sickle” or the “tough guy’s plough”, but the legends grandmothers told their grandchildren centuries ago share certain characteristics with our modern forms of entertainment.

They may not have sat on a couch eating crisps, but the legends grandmothers told their grandchildren centuries ago share certain characteristics with our modern forms of entertainment.

Consider for example the so-called “Nibelungen Saga”, a story that was told during the middle-ages by people in the northern regions of Europe. In this saga, we learn about the fate of Siegfried, the prince of a Kingdom named Xanten. After his parents are slaughtered in a bloody battle, he survives and is raised by a stranger under a different name – only to later find out that he, the poor but proud blacksmith, is a powerful king. Is it not exactly this transformation from average to great that aroused so much excitement over Paul Potts, a not especially handsome mobile-phone seller, who became famous within weeks all over the UK and big parts of Europe because of his beautiful opera voice (and the promotion of “Britain’s got talent”)?

A similar parallel can be drawn between ancient myths and modern reality TV shows in other European countries. Jason’s journey to capture the Golden Fleece is fraught with difficulties and obstacles – among them is a terrifying storm, an army of undead soldiers and an island full of women who are seducing Jason and his team (the Argonauts) only to sacrifice them eventually. The modern equivalent of this story is to be found in shows such as “goodbye Deutschland” – a series where people (often an entire family) leave Germany to find a new life somewhere far away. It might appear that this comparison is unfair since Jason had no idea of what kind of adventures were waiting for him, whereas today’s German emigrants probably planned their journey and know the country and region they are moving to – those who have seen the show, however, know that this is not true. Often the participants have no idea what they are in for. Still, while pointing to an important parallel between today’s and pre-modern forms of entertainment, the examples described here also point to important differences.

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