Like everyone else, I find Vince McMahon on my mind. What I find most intriguing is a point Sam made - that the McMahon's were very early, and very cutting edge, reality TV. The extension to "The Osbournes," is easy to make, and I hear the Hulk is doing similar. The results are somewhat similar as well, though I've heard of the Osbourne girl in the tabloids and trash TV much more often than the younger McMahons. Who really, I'd never heard of at all, implying that the WWE is, to large extent, a world unto itself, helping to explain the continued success. Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie are two other names to spring to mind, and sparked Ritchie's rise to fame much like the Hulk's.
The results of these shows have been ever expanding personalities for people who were already familiar with the spotlight, but it's the same any time you begin with the formula of a group of people, cameras, and add tension. This, in fact, is the result of format television - an outlined concept that can be sold into many markets for local production. Reality TV is a recent, and successful format, firstly because it is generally fairly cheap to produce, but mainly because as it depends on individual personalities, it is remarkably easy to tailor to various audiences and cultures. Just look at Trading Spaces versus the original British one, or FOX reality shows versus those on Bravo.
In each reality show that has a consistent cast of equals (I'm not talking about hosts, here, specifically) stars emerge. Some do go on to acting careers, and more and more, some are NOT merely our next door neighbors. (Recent dialogues surrounding American Idol are concerned with the prior musical achievements of some of the competitors, and the availability of this material online.) And yet, having no special training, some of them become celebrities, the camera loves them, the public loves them - or hates them - but at any rate the public is paying attention.
Are these people playacting? They did, after all, come in to compete. But some of the most engaging personalities come out of the early days, (Jay and Austin from Season 1, PR anyone?) before the assumption was neccessarily that a good strategy is to foster a popular character. And most of them had little experience in front of a camera, no experience in front of the world. I was watching that wife swapping show the other day, and while the two families were obviously chosen for being strong willed and very different (one ate everything raw - even meat, the other was happily urban) there were signs that each were reacting to the heightened circumstances in ways that seem over the top for the disinterested viewer.
Why? Because it is real. It's always real - when you're doing it. The set of "Friends" was real - it's just what they were really doing was much more self contained and scripted than what people are doing on reality TV. Which brings us back to the McMahons. The character/real person binary distinctions are ok for theoretical constructions, but the presumption that there is a line anywhere, or that there needs to be a line, is ludicrous. Why does anyone care? Will you like them more if you know they step into the ring and put on a mask with a set of defined rules? Do you lose respect for Vince if you see the 'businessman' step farther away from good taste than we presume cultured high class individuals to appreciate? Or it is just a puzzle to solve? Because at least you'll have amusement for years.