Ten-year-old Olivia Palmer, a fifth grader at Pacific Beach Elementary, picks up the television remote, presses "on," and touches two numbers, 3 and 6, on the keypad. The TV goes to MTV's Real World. It's a program about real people being videotaped while they're doing real and really mundane things. One of which is to sit on the couch and watch reality television shows. Olivia knows The Real World well. Much to her parents' chagrin, she's seen its episodes dozens of times. Indeed, Olivia, who seems older than ten, in a way already aged by the media, has watched all kinds of shows: the new reality TV, music videos, horror films, programs like Lizzie McGuire (an old favorite) and TThat's So Raven (a new joy: "I'm into That's So Raven but not, like, into-into. I'm not obsessed with it") and her all-time favorite, The Simpsons, which, besides its goofy improbability, does, for Olivia, have a message: "Like, chill out and don't be so frustrated."
"The Real World is reality TV," she says. She points the remote at the screen. "That's the alcoholic woman. She has this really bad lung disease, and she still smokes. I think she's, like, 21. And the first night [of the show] she was, like, so drunk she couldn't even walk. She's an alcoholic." Why do you think they're showing us their lives? "I don't know why; it's just reality TV." For me, the program appears to have no other reason for being than the camera as voyeur. But for Olivia -- whose medium-long brown hair has that tangled middle-part where chunks are unevenly pulled to one side or the other -- The Real World does have a purpose. "They want to make [the show] so it's, like, different. And I bet this isn't the real girl. I think they made her, like, a total alcoholic." Do you think it's a "fake reality" show? "Yeah, because the producers and the writers edit it and stuff."
Olivia explains why the editors give people these exaggerated traits. "Well, because, like, they want to sort it out so they're characters. So she's the alcoholic. And then the other girl's the wild-and-crazy one. And that guy she's talking to..." -- that guy is drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag, probably beer, according to Olivia's theory. So what we're watching is a real part of their lives? "This isn't part of their lives. What they do is they pick people that they think are, like, good, from all over the country and from Southern California, and they put them in one house together. There are secret cameras everywhere. See that guy? They make him look like he's the nicest person. They're making him look even more nice" than he is normally, in his life. The scene shifts, and somebody is taking a shower. The body, though, is behind frosted glass doors.
This installment of The Real World, Olivia says, is brand-new. And yet she has the "performers" pegged already -- whatever trait the person has in abundance (looks, habits, talk), the editors emphasize via editing. Olivia thinks critically about the characters' depiction. She likes the show as much as she likes to see through it. It's part of the cynical allure of TV for kids. To figure out its fakery. A calling few parents care to answer.
Another flick and we're at VH1, "the channel I watch." A promotional "biography" of pop diva Jessica Simpson, called Jessica Simpson, is playing. "She is, like, one of the popular people," Olivia says, "and she is, like, tortured, but, like, she really wanted to be a role model to other girls, but people didn't like her because of the way she looked. But when she was coming out to sing, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were coming out with their 'Oops!...I Did It Again' stuff."
Olivia presses the remote's blue button, which reveals the electronic guide. Here, there's information about the program we're watching -- stars, story, rating. It says Jessica Simpson is rated TV-PG. I ask whether she got her parents' permission to view it. "Yeah," she says, "but I've seen this. I'm allowed to see PG stuff because, with me, it depends on why it's PG -- if it's for violence, if it's for foul language."
If you see a show is rated TV-PG, would you go ask your mom or dad whether you could watch it? Olivia says, "I would see why it's rated PG" -- the electronic guide explains the show's rating for age and content, such as TV-G, TV-PG, and so on; its genre, say, comedy or drama; and warning info: sexual situations, adult situations, adult language, violence -- "and if I think it's interesting, then I can watch that. I won't watch anything that's, like, horror." With cable, Olivia's viewing possibilities seem endless and endlessly distracting. She does like Jessica Simpson.
"Have you seen The Newlyweds?" Olivia asks. "It's a program," she says, "that features Jessica and her husband, Nick." I confess I haven't. But I've heard that the cameras follow the couple around and show Simpson to be kind of dumb. "She's not dumb," Olivia says, "she doesn't think. The argument she had with her husband: 'Is it chicken or is it tuna?' And then they had buffalo wings, and she's, like, 'Oh, I don't eat buffalo.' " By now, such "Jessica Simpson" sound bites, spanning the globe, are known to, what? a billion people.
Suddenly there's a video of Britney Spears. "That's who Jessica is competing against," Olivia says. Jessica Simpson looks like Britney Spears. "Yeah, they all look alike. But now Christina Aguilera, she's dyed her hair black and she's gone, like, bad, and does drugs." How do you know she's gone bad? "Oh, it's obvious. [Her videos] are, like, dirty, and her butt is hanging out and stuff, and there's, like, a fight in there, and she's punching this girl out."
So you decided that this Christina Aguilera video was okay to watch?