Americans are voyeurs. We like to watch.
Since the invention of the television, it has been the choice for peering into the world outside our living room and, despite the popularity of streaming video and the Internet in general, TV is still king of household entertainment as evidenced by the announcement over the weekend that we watched more television in 2010 than ever before.
The most popular shows are still on the networks, but cable has been inching its way closer and helping them gain ground is the pinnacle of peeping Tom reality television. Nothing makes us huddle in front of the boob tube like watching people "just like us" do really stupid shit.
Of course, reality TV is about as real as professional wrestling, but we all suspend our cynical disbelief and sit transfixed in front of the grand theater of rich, overly botoxed women, men who risk their lives for crab meat, warbling teens trying to imitate Mariah Carey while secretly hoping to be the next Katy Perry and creeping guidos hoping to smush. Much like the painting of Kramer in Seinfeld, reality television is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet we can't look away.
So, it comes as no surprise that many of the big winners in the battle for ratings this year were reality shows like Jersey Shore, Pawn Stars, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.
A more jaded viewer might say that television networks only put on more reality shows because they are cheap to make and follow a simple formula that can be replicated with little effort. That's true, but we still eat them up like chocolate cake for breakfast, which is ironic considering television isn't just expanding viewership, it's also expanding our waistlines.
It seems a sad testament to our obsessive love of living vicariously through other people that we are turning into a nation of overweight slobs. In our society, it wouldn't be terribly inaccurate to say the closest thing we have to exercise is watching reruns of The Biggest Loser.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books on fast, easy-to-cook meals on the shelves because we always complain about never having enough time to make a healthy meal for ourselves and our families, yet we watch 34 hours of television per week on average. Combine that with the 13 hours per week we spend on the Internet each week and God only knows how many hours we waste playing Angry Birds and you have a recipe for disaster -- a delicious, sugar-coated, buttercream-filled disaster.
We're so caught up, we can't even protect our children from our own sloth. A recent study found that 32 percent of infants in the U.S. are obese or at risk of obesity.
All of this, mind you, comes from a somewhat pudgy writer who makes his living staring at a computer monitor, frequently jokes that cleaning out his DVR is part of his housekeeping routine and fills his iPhone with apps, many of which waste time on worthless nonsense. Like most Americans, I am my own worst enemy. While I may not partake in large quantities of reality TV, I certainly spend far too much time living vicariously through the lives of people -- some kinda real and others completely fictional -- on that flickering box in my living room.
The truth is, we all need to spend a little more time doing things and quite a bit less time watching other people doing them. We'd be healthier and happier as a society if for no other reason than all the real housewives, guidos and pseudo-celebrities could go back into relative obscurity. That alone makes me want to sell off my television and spend more time, as my girlfriend often suggests, reading, and I'll do that right after I catch the Rockets game. Old habits and all.