'Aspirational TV?' Or More Cable Voyeurism?

What is it with TV producers and housewives?  While the fascination with housewives is nothing new in the landscape of television, it has devolved from icons like Marion Cunningham and Carol Brady to the women of Wisteria Lane on ABC's Desperate Housewives

In fact those desperate women have spawned a new form of reality television, courtesy of the Bravo network.  Three years ago Bravo introduced viewers to the Real Housewives of Orange County, a group of women living the high life in Southern California.  This time the cameras are focused on five women in the Big Apple, the Real Housewives of New York City

Now, because this is “aspirational TV” – a phrase introduced by liberal sociologist Pepper Schwartz in a New York Times interview about the show – these are not the average housewives you'd find in a city of eight million people.  These are five white socialites, one of whom isn't actually a housewife, who share the ups and downs of making their way into New York society, summering in the Hamptons and promoting their businesses/interests/charitable endeavors.

Apparently there will be cat fights between the ladies too.  At least according to the Times article. That makes good TV, you know.

Schwartz says “aspirational TV” is really about getting a “chance to ogle.”  This of course fits the menu of most reality TV programming, the cult of celebrity that feeds sales of People magazine, viewership of Web sites like TMZ.com and other pop culture offerings.  The media landscape is filled with opportunities for everyday folks to peer into the lives of other people.  It started off with shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, only now all sorts of people, not just the “beautiful people,” think they deserve the spotlight and are willing to allow cameras to record their most intimate, personal and sometimes embarrassing moments to achieve their 15 minutes of fame.  Or in the case of this new show, a seven-week TV series.

The Times feature on the new series set up Bravo's rationale for producing another “housewife” show.  

§         “'We love the idea of looking at the lives of strong, powerful, successful women,” said Andrew Cohen, the senior vice president of production/programming at Bravo. The channel found the “housewives,' he said, using a classic New York method: asking around. He sees the show as 'Peyton Place' in Manhattan, he said.”

§         “People have affection for the campy term 'housewife,' Mr. Cohen said, adding that the definition was up for grabs. The series sought 'larger than life' women who traveled in the same circles, so it did not matter that Ms. Frankel had escaped both the house and the wife parts of the description, he said.”

Some of the shows participants spun their participation in ways to make them appear just like every other housewife in America.

“The unmarried Ms. Frankel, who hears her biological clock ringing, said: 'I do represent a lot of women — where everybody has been or is going. You get on the road and you don't know where you'll get off.'

“'If you take any five women in the world, everyone has their own flaws and insecurities,” she said, calling the show a chance for viewers to relate to them. 'Some people are saying it's not a good cross-section, but it's a slice of a certain kind of woman.'

“Ms. Singer said: “People like to see what goes on with other people. I have the same problems as everyone else — managing your husband, managing your home, managing your child.'”

“'People who saw the promos said their teenage daughter is embarrassed by them too,' she said, referring to the scenes in which Avery seems mortified by Ms. Singer's very existence.

“So maybe some themes are universal. Still, Ms. Zarin, who interrupted a Caribbean vacation for a phone interview, said she enjoyed the process but worried about the public reaction to the series. 'My daughter is getting heat from her peers about doing the show,' she said. 'They're not being so nice. She's 15. It's a tough age anyway.'

“Ms. Zarin said she hoped that viewers would remember that Housewives is entertainment, nothing more. 'It's just a reality show,' she said. 'It's a voyeuristic look into people's lives at a moment in time. We're not trying to be better than anyone else.'”

Reality shows are becoming the bread and butter of network producers.  The Hollywood writers' strike provided networks the opportunity to fill their schedules with this cheaper fare for 100 days.  Even though the strike has been resolved, some producers are loath to give up the reality genre, because it provides more opportunities for more shows like Real Housewives of New York City.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.