Cringe TV: Jon & Kate Plus The Rest Of Us

William Hung performs i i

"She Bangs," We Cringe: Former American Idol contestant William Hung performs on the Today show in 2004. Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
William Hung performs

"She Bangs," We Cringe: Former American Idol contestant William Hung performs on the Today show in 2004.

Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
A visitor to Universal Studios Hollywood gets live scorpions put on her head i i

Get To 'Live' Reality TV: A visitor to Universal Studios Hollywood gets live scorpions put on her head — part of an attraction based on the reality TV show Fear Factor. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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A visitor to Universal Studios Hollywood gets live scorpions put on her head

Get To 'Live' Reality TV: A visitor to Universal Studios Hollywood gets live scorpions put on her head — part of an attraction based on the reality TV show Fear Factor.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Allen Funt (1914-1999) and Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983)  on the set of the television program i i

Origin Of The Speciousness? Allen Funt (left) and Arthur Godfrey on the set of Candid Camera in 1961. Some date the origins of the reality TV genre to this show, which used a hidden lens to capture unaware people in awkward situations. UPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Allen Funt (1914-1999) and Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983)  on the set of the television program

Origin Of The Speciousness? Allen Funt (left) and Arthur Godfrey on the set of Candid Camera in 1961. Some date the origins of the reality TV genre to this show, which used a hidden lens to capture unaware people in awkward situations.

UPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Cringe TV. You know — the kind of show that makes you flinch. Or wince. Or worse.

Like the first time you heard William Hung perform "She Bangs" on American Idol. Or when Irene called Stephen a "homosexual" on The Real World: Seattle, and Stephen chased her and slapped her in the face.

The cringiness used to be confined to discrete moments in the shows — like the time the young neighbor made a clumsy pass at the decorator on the home-improvement show Trading Spaces. But now, with the mucked-up marriage of Jon and Kate Gosselin — centerpieces of the eponymous Jon & Kate Plus 8 series on TLC — all over the tabloids and TV gabfests, Cringe TV has spilled into everyday life.

It's all cringe, all the time.

Built On Cringe

Aspects of Cringe TV have been around a long time. The Joe Pyne Show, for instance, was a nationally syndicated talk show in the 1960s. Pyne famously berated his guests. But cringitude hit the Big Time with the evolution of reality TV.

Lahn Kim, who teaches in the Department of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says "Reality television — nonfiction, or what is called 'lifestyle television' in the U.K. — captures the interest of people worldwide because such programs are about 'proposed' ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. A viewer can look to the people in reality television programs and think, 'I could do that.' "

In fact, a recent survey of British educators by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers reveals that 90 percent of teachers report witnessing students imitate the language and behavior of reality television celebrities. About three-quarters of those surveyed say that reality television shows, such as Big Brother, are causing students to act more aggressively.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the association, tells the BBC that television companies "should take more responsibility regarding the content of programs in general, especially considering the impact they have on the behaviour of young people."

Not all reality TV is cringerific. Arguably there are some shows, such as The Biggest Loser (in which obese contestants compete to see who can lose the biggest percentage of their body weight), that accentuate the positives and support the participants. But most series are built on outrage and outrageousness.

Cringe TV comes from the horror of watching someone do or say something that is embarrassing, over-revealing, ridiculous, stupid, dangerous, unthinking or just plain wrong.

"Now we have networks that are built around the cringe," says Hank Stuever, who writes about TV and pop culture for The Washington Post. "There's Bravo, the Style Network, even HGTV. Even there, on shows about buying homes or upgrading a kitchen, you manage to cringe sometimes at how boring the people in those shows, like House Hunters, are."

There are tough-to-watch reality shows about rich and poor, celebrity and non, skinny and fat, smart and dumb. There are sting-your-sensibility series based on just about every aspect of life, including games, jobs, pranks, relationships, sports, do-it-yourself projects, have-it-done-to-yourself makeovers and experimental living arrangements.

In the fractured universe of cable TV, audiences are smaller and competition is stiffer than in the past. "Whether a series gets renewed," Stuever says, "depends on whether they create conflict, get the participants upset. The more cringy a show is to viewers, the more likely that it will get renewed."

In 2008, Court TV even changed its name to truTV and became a network with a full roster of cringe-triggering shows, such as World's Wildest Vacation Videos, Operation Repo and Inside American Jail. In one episode of truTV's Speeders, a cop stops a couple of cooks for going too fast, and truTV gives viewers the lawbreakers' favorite recipes.

A Brief History Of Reality

Historians disagree about the origins of the speciousness. Some date the genre from TV's earliest days. Allen Funt's Candid Camera, which used a hidden lens to capture unaware people in awkward situations, and Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, which showcased talented performers, both debuted on television in 1948.

Other forensic watchers trace reality TV back to An American Family, a 1973 PBS documentary-style series that followed the Louds, a tumultuous family. "The Loud family," says Stuever, "were the chimps in the space capsule of reality TV."

Still others hearken back to MTV's The Real World, which tossed disparate — and often desperate — people together in a pre-arranged living experiment. The modernists at the Web site Reality-TV-Online claim "it was in 2002 when CBS's blockbuster hit called Survivor finally gave reality TV a name."

Add to the reality TV mixture the unslakable American thirst for up-to-the-minute reaction. "American television has a particular origin of being a medium of liveness — live anthology drama, variety shows, live studio audiences," says Kim. "American audiences are especially attuned to a sense of immediacy and intimacy with what is on the small screen."

That immediacy and intimacy — being privy to the details of what should be the private lives of others — only magnifies and intensifies the cringe factor.

Mirror, Mirror

The phrase "Cringe TV" can be traced at least as far back as 1986. An Australian critic used the term to describe a silly trivia show. Little did he know what the future would bring.

After all, that was before Fear Factor, Wife Swap and Cheaters.

Regardless of the subgenre, the common denominator in all reality TV shows is that inevitable time when participants turn and face the camera to talk about how they are feeling and what it's like to be them in those very special moments in those very special places.

Often, the lack of self-awareness and the absence of an ego-governor produce the most cringe-inducing moments on TV.

And that may be the ultimate, mostly invisible influence of Cringe TV on society at large. It's not the strange and perverse ways that society is reflected on reality TV. It's the strange and perverse ways that reality TV is reflected in society.

"People now spend a considerable amount of time deconstructing what just happened to them," says Stuever. Technology such as Twitter and Facebook encourage everyone to act as if they are constantly on camera — reporting their motions and emotions to an attentive audience.

Through Cringe TV, Stuever says, our worst instincts "are reflected back on ourselves."

It's possible that if there is more and more reality-TV behavior in real life, there will be less and less demand for reality TV on TV.

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