Can We Ditch Reality Shows and Focus on Reality?

reality televisionI have always been puzzled by the allure of reality television. In trying to decipher a method to the madness of Survivor, the Bachelor or Joe Millionaire, I can  imagine that viewers are partially intrigued by challenges that are presented and overcome. When seemingly “normal” folk accomplish this variety of tests, the viewers can better relate being there themselves. It’s why we watch game shows like Wheel of Fortune, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire or Double Dare. So if the challenge is what we like to see, why exactly can we not focus on the real challenges we have for ourselves, like the myriad of sustainable opportunities laid before us, and participate in something on the right side of the screen? Is it possible to blur the lines of tangible action and entertainment to promote involvement and produce better results for a movement like sustainability?

I recently had a reader write in with a discussion topic. Craig Michael Lie Njie offered some food for thought:

Will a kind of “infotainment”, incremental, crowd-sourced approach actually lead people to lead more sustainable lives?  Are we right in our thinking as to why people don’t just do these things (like turn off the lights whenever they leave a room) because they don’t understand the aggregate savings?  Can turning sustainability into a kind of worldwide competition or marketplace actually affect larger combined environmental savings?

The idea has merit in trying to speak the language of Americans: a lingo based on consumption and luxuries. After all, the U.S. is the “entertainment Mecca” of the world.  Craig’s consulting company, Kismet Worldwide, is trying to attack the opportunity with an iPhone App called Waste Not that focuses on the sharing of environmental ideas between social networks. One could argue that many of us would rather be impressed than taught, but can the laissez-faire nature of just being entertained be bolstered with participation by incorporating games, contest and leaderboards into the goals we need to accomplish?

Perhaps it can.

The closest example to successfully combining sustainable activism and interactive challenges is probably Earth Hour, sponsored and run by the World Wildlife Federation. Since its 2007 inception in Australia, the international event has increased its participation year over year to include businesses, thousands of municipalities and millions of individuals around the globe.

Having just recently occurred on March 27th, the event’s website claims that over 50 million people took part in turning off their lights for an hour to help signal the desire for sustainable progress. Lights on monuments and buildings were turned off in cities like Rome, San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong and New York. The dim skylines speak for themselves as a testament to the event’s success. had some great shots of participation around the world.

Despite the fact that the event only lasts for one hour on one day, it could very well garner more active participation than any other sustainable campaign in the world. It begs the question as to why Earth Hour works and I think the answer is only a step or two away from Craig’s insight about active entertainment being linked to a cultural movement. Earth Hour may have some common traits with an information-based entertainment approach to activism.

Instant Gratification: Part of the reason we gravitate towards movies is how quickly our desire for intrigue, action or romance can be fulfilled. While reading a book can take days to weeks depending on your speed and dedication, in often less than two hours most movies can be begun and finished. Earth Hour revolves around instant, short lived action that translates into results that can be gauged the next morning. This also parallels our culture’s increasing fascination with real-time information that can be utilized by social networking tools like Twitter or Facebook. iPhone apps touch on this as well. Maybe we need to be making more real-time sustainable data public. How much gas are we pumping right now? How many kWh are being expended? How much sewage is being pumped in the ground?

Action in Numbers: To many people, there is something a bit more attractive about being part of something that everyone is doing rather than only pushing oneself to accomplish. Just as a prime time show will enrapture millions of people for an hour, so too can a sweeping measure to turn off lights for 60 minutes. Ten years ago, quick crowd-gathering was something that took planning and was difficult to count on. Today, a topic can cross millions of people on Twitter in hours. Social networking can help more people feel included and informed which can lead into more successful events that make a larger difference.

We’ll Take the Physical Challenge: This breed of event can find success for the same reason that American Idol was such a hit. When people feel like participants, they are more likely to listen to why the challenge is important and are more interested in the final result. Using new tools to craft opportunities for interactive scenarios with published results can help attract new attention.

Short Term Goals: As I mentioned, most of our entertainment options do not demand extended focus from viewers. Television, movies, theme parks—they all thrive off of short bursts of energy and effort. Despite how some of us may wish otherwise, for most Americans sustainability is still a very new and obscure topic that is overused and ill-defined. As many will note, the gravest effects from our lack of environmental stewardship will most likely come to pass long after a considerable portion of our population is already gone. Asking people to plan a century in advance can come across as a tall order that does not do much to gather support. Making more, shorter term goals that allow people to taste success and note progress can help. How many people would sit through a ten hour film no matter how good or important it was?

Some people may be stuck close to where we started asking, why do we have to jump through all of these hoops just to get people on board with something that is in everyone’s best interest? Are the environmental threats that we have already created not an exciting enough reality as it is—do we really need to add more intrigue and incentive? Baby steps, and any step forward is progress. For as capable as humans are to adjust, we are still notoriously resistant to change.