Shocking 'Neda' Video Puts 'Shocking' 'Jon & Kate' Episode in Context

Rash Report: Real -- and Surreal -- Reality TV

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- Two young women who captivated public attention this week also captured the two faces of reality TV.

Neda Agha-Soltan (left) and Kate Gosselin (right).
Neda Agha-Soltan (left) and Kate Gosselin (right).
The first is Neda Agha-Soltan -- now known worldwide simply as Neda -- whose death at the hands of the theocratic thugs cracking down on Iranian protesters was captured on YouTube. Her dying cry of "it burned me" has burned into her country's consciousness as the symbol of resistance -- and maybe even martyrdom -- to those who were electrified by the election, but believe their vote was short-circuited.

Even -- or perhaps especially -- in a cultural context of video violence, the video of her death is deeply disturbing. And the anguish and anger over the lost life of such a promising person needs no translation, as it's universal in any language, and any land.

What's different is that the pain is portrayed instantly worldwide, outside of official sources and mainstream media mechanisms. This is the real power of real reality TV -- that those down in the streets can upload images instantaneously, creating a common conversation that no Mullah or no media mouthpiece can deny.

It's too early to tell if this is a new Iranian revolution. It's not too early to tell that Neda's needless death, delivered digitally across the world, is emblematic of the new-media revolution, with a more real version of reality TV at the heart of it.

The second young woman represents the flip side of reality TV, the blurring of the real, surreal and manufactured that has become this era's dominant genre. Kate Gosselin, the mother of the eight on TLC's "Jon and Kate Plus 8," continued careening down a path previously seen in films like "The Truman Show" by announcing her separation from her husband Jon on TV last night.

This was just the latest incident of reality TV altering the real lives of its contestants. Its first breakout star, Richard Hatch, wasn't just naked on "Survivor" but in front of a judge in explaining his tax troubles, for which he did hard time. Susan Boyle had an easy time singing, but a terrible time being heard, as the pressure resulting from performing on "Britain's Got Talent" left her hospitalized. And check out the checkout lane magazines at the grocery store this week, which includes Us Magazine's cover claim by Stephanie Pratt that "The Hills Made Me Bulimic."

This kind of reality TV isn't just a cultural phenomena, but a commercial one: "Jon and Kate" was watched by more than 10.6 million total viewers, making it the highest rated show on network or cable Monday night, not just in total viewers but with ad-centric adults 18-49 as well. (Please see the attached chart for individual and network program ratings.)

The Neda video viewership is harder to quantify, but could be expected to be exponentially higher, as not only are there are hundreds of YouTube versions, but it has been part of news coverage in multiple media forms worldwide.

Rash chart June 22, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

Of course, comparing Neda -- an unwitting victim -- with Kate, a willing participant (let alone the severity of their stories) is unfair (and probably unwise). But both show how real people, albeit in distinctly different versions of reality TV, are at the center of the narrative, be it the news or entertainment one. And that's a dramatic departure from how the world's stories have previously been told, both in speed and in media form.

In explaining her side of the story, Kate shared her wish for "peace" for herself and her family. Regardless of how people feel about her -- and a reality show that makes viewers voyeurs -- let's hope she gets it.

And while it's tragically too late for brave Neda, let's hope the Iranian people find it, too.

Tuesday: We already have the partisan politics, stagflation and foreign entanglements of the '70s. We might as well have some of the kitschy culture as well. So catch tonight's program premiere of "The Superstars," which is basically a remake of the '70s competition show.
Wednesday: "Don't Worry. Be Happy," sang Bobby McFerrin. Maybe besides a catchy pop tune, he was on to something: PBS explores the connection between music and mind in "The Music Instinct: Science and Song," which McFerrin hosts.

NBC to try to find its version of Susan Boyle, as "America's Got Talent" has its season premiere.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see

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