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Friday, December 5, 2008

I've got me some "Truman Syndrome"

If you blinked last week, you might have missed a small news story talking about something that is being called “Truman Syndrome.”

A little history knowledge and the temper of the times might make you wonder if it refers to Harry S. Truman who famously said, “It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose your own.”

But alas the reference here is a tad more current. It refers to a syndrome named for the character portrayed by Jim Carrey in the 1998 film The Truman Show who discovers that his entire life is being staged and filmed for a 24-hour-a-day reality TV show.

Apparently psychiatrists are reporting a number of patients who suffer from this “Truman Syndrome,” a delusion that they are secretly part of a reality TV show. One patient believed his every move was being filmed for a reality contest; another went to a federal building and demanded he be released from a reality show being made about his life. Others believe that the doctors who treat them are merely actors in their reality show.

Truman Syndrome has divided experts with some critics pointing out that delusional patients believing that friends or relatives have been replaced by impostors is nothing new. However, Dr. Joel Gold, a psychiatrist affiliated with New York's Bellevue Hospital, believes the “Truman” delusions are more pervasive involving, not just a few associates as impostors but society at large. His brother, Ian Gold, a professor at McGill University in Montreal suggests that reality TV and the Web's ability to make strangers into intimates may be compounding the psychological pressure on people with underlying problems dealing with others. Reports suggest the disorder underscores the influence pop culture can have on mental conditions.

According to a 1997 Learning and Skills Council study, one in seven UK teenagers hopes to gain fame by appearing on reality television. So called reality shows have become a kind of lottery ticket, a quick way to fame even if it is only Andy’s famous 15 minutes. Television is full of this manufactured reality. Many assume that it is a recent phenomenon, when in fact it has a long history. We have always been a little nutty.

Debuting in 1948, Allen Funt's Candid Camera was based on his previous 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone, and showed unsuspecting ordinary people reacting to candid camera pranks. One of my favorite clips features comedian Fanny Flagg as the first female airline pilot.


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As horrible and shocking as many of today’s reality TV shows are, is there any that could be as bad as Queen for a Day which ran between 1956-1962 on NBC. The game show featured contestants, poor bedraggled women telling their tales of woe. The applause-o-meter signaled the winner - the most pathetic- who was trotted up to a throne, wrapped in a queenly robe and crowned Queen for a Day. The advertiser's prizes were introduced one by one usually ending with the cherished refrigerator, what every woman who had lost everything wanted.

Queen For a Day - And the winner is..



Some claim that reality television’s success is due to its ability to provide schadenfreude, the “largely unanticipated delight in the suffering of another.” In these financially difficult times will this kind of programming continue to thrill?

There is hope on the horizon. New York-based ad company Horizon Media analyzed Nielsen Media Research data for broadcast series during the first two months of the TV season, compared with the same period last year and found that established reality-competition shows and game shows are suffering a slump. Scott Collins of the Los Angeles Times suggests, “hard times may not have any direct effect on what people choose to watch. But there's little doubt that during times of upheaval, viewers' tastes can shift. As the Dow continues to spiral down and jobs dry up, viewers may have decided that their everyday lives already contain more reality than they can bear.” But as I read this report, I also read that plans are afoot to supersize the Donald’s Celebrity Apprentice to two hours.

In the movie The Truman Show, we cheer our hero Truman as he escapes the island and the illusions that the media have created.

Can we do the same?

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