Reality TV: Joy or Junk?

The essay question on the March SAT has left some students feeling confused and irritated. It asked them to write an argument about reality television and its possible beneficial or negative impacts on viewers.

Controversy ensued regarding the fairness of the question. If students aren’t that familiar with reality television, are they at a disadvantage on this essay question?

Some say no. They point out that the underlying point of the essay is to choose a side of an argument and display the ability to formulate a strong written response. They also argue that it contains all the information a student would need to accurately answer it, and that actually being a reality TV watcher is immaterial. Judge for yourself. Here is the prompt:

“Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

“Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?”

Follow this link and you will find a blog post arguing that the controversy is overblown. In it, Laurence Bunin, senior vice president for operations and the general manager of the SAT Program at the College Board, is quoted giving the following example:

“If presented with a topic about balancing the risk of climbing a mountain with the reward of reaching the summit, for example, a good writer could compose a strong essay without ever having reached the summit of Mount Everest.”

Fair enough. But let us raise a couple points:

How are students supposed to support their essay answer with legitimate literary, historical, or personal concrete examples if they know nothing about reality TV? A risk/reward analysis of mountain climbing requires considerably less knowledge than a pro/con debate over reality television after all. Reality television isn’t a “thing” to consider. It’s a diverse group of programs, some of which may have more merit than others.

It’s also fair to consider whether we have reached a new low when a supporting example on a college entrance exam could be a drunken episode of “Jersey Shore” or a superficial episode of “The Bachelor.”

Not every student taking the March SAT had to answer the reality TV question. But whatever the prompt, the essay answer is high stakes. It accounts for 33 percent of a student’s score on the writing portion, which makes up 800 out of the 2,400 points one can get on the SAT. Students will learn March 31 how they fared.

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