Bread, Circuses, Reality Television

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 3, 2010 — 1 Comment

The undisputed queen of the “spiritual but not religious” demographic in America, Oprah Winfrey, is done merely dipping her toes into the shallow waters of reality television and is diving right in with “Your OWN Show”. Seemingly a contest to pick a new show for the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) cable network (launching 1/11/11), it is actually a sophisticated vetting process for reality television program contestants, who will then compete for the actual show (maybe).

“The online contest is really a search for contestants for an OWN reality series in which competitors will then vie for their own show on the network.”

At least one prominent Pagan, Karen Tate, author of “Walking An Ancient Path: Rebirthing Goddess on Planet Earth”, is vying for a shot on the program, and has garnered over half-a-million votes in the process.

“Empowering Women to Save the World” – that’s been the mission of author and radio show host Karen Tate. Karen wants to go in search of sacred knowledge, hidden history, and places other talk shows have dared not tread, examining the provocative and politically incorrect to raise awareness, empower and uplift women and our like-minded brothers. Karen will interview scholars and practitioners about social, spiritual and political subjects such as female genital mutilation, women reclaiming their bodies as sacred and why the Vatican refuses to ordain women. Hear what they didn’t teach you in Sunday School but you wish they had! No celebrity gossip, diets and cooking demonstrations on this show! Karen is more interested in viewers having an aware mind and being turned on to ideas that contribute toward a caring culture. We’ll talk about all those important things Mom warned were not suitable for dinner table conversation – sex, power and politics!”

While that vote tally is certainly impressive, we have to remember that OWN has total control over who gets picked, and they’ve made it clear that some of the contestants will be selected from auditions, not from who gets the most votes. We should also be very clear that the chosen contestants will be put through the reality television ringer just like on any other program, one has to only look at the fact that reality TV producer Mark Burnett (the man behind Survivor and The Apprentice) is pulling strings behind the scenes. It is this reality contest aspect that has Pagan author and teacher T. Thorn Coyle steering clear, despite the temptations of mass audience.

“What is the goal of “Your OWN Show”? I do not know. But it does involve the search for a new talk show host, which means it has to make for what is considered to be ‘good television’ which often means jealousy, petty conflict, and the tearing down of others. I can hope this show will not go this way, but I am not sanguine. I’m sure that those people I know who auditioned for the privilege of getting onto a reality show think that they can keep it together under the pressure cooker of filming while being placed under unusual stressors and that their message will shine through. My thinking is that the cutting floor is filled with our good intentions. No matter how well a person stays on point, maintains center, or tries to foster good will, I do not trust that this will end up part of the show. Likelihood is, the biggest personality will win. I hope I am proven wrong.”

To quote many a Quaker, this friend speaks my mind. Despite every good intention, almost every instance of modern Pagans engaging in reality television has resulted in them being made to look like fools (or at the very least, distorted their personality). Which is why I’ve long counseled my readers to resist the temptations and fat pay-days involved.  We may think that Oprah’s network will be different, but she has a long history of engaging in stories that will produce the most emotional highs and lows. Don’t believe for a second that situations won’t be arranged that will aim to draw out your worst qualities or weakest moments. It’s akin to undergoing an initiatory trial, only, instead of being surrounded my friends and loved ones, you are paraded in front of millions wanting to be entertained by your discomfort and pain. No soul escapes from that unscathed.

In addition, modern Pagans should be careful of questing for Oprah’s spotlight. For every truly inspirational figure she endorses, there is a James Arthur Ray or Jenny McCarthy that seems to slip through the rigorous vetting process. Her engagement with popular New Age trends like The Secret have been problematic at times (not to mention other fads), and like many talk show hosts that emerged in the 1980s, she uncritically engaged in the SRA panics (and never apologized for it after the fact). In that sense, Oprah is a true mirror to the bright and dark sides of the New Age/metaphysical movement. In the end, Oprah’s projects are meant to reflect the power, influence, and inspirational quality of Oprah. As a people who acknowledge the true power of our thoughts and deeds, we should be mindful of who and what these contests are really for. Are inspirational folks being given an opportunity, or are they being recruited to generate more wealth and fame for Oprah’s empire?

It’s no secret that I believe modern Pagans should be building their own media networks and institutions instead of simply trying to gain the attention of existing conglomerates that don’t necessarily share our values; it’s about control, control over our own image and control over what we decide is news, that what is truly important to us. We have never been in a better position than now to start this process, which is why I’m excited to learn that Thorn is going to be moving into making professionally produced video-casts in addition to her podcasts, because it signals an alternative to simply hoping reality television producers will treat us fairly. I do wish Karen Tate well, and hope this experience brings her to new levels of success, but I remain, as ever, deeply skeptical of the reality television industry, and our largely negative role within it.

Jason Pitzl-Waters