I have a fractured relationship with ”reality TV”. My first memories of this now ubiquitous television format are of Big Brother in its first incarnation on Network Ten (2001-2008).
I remember doing a surprisingly academic project on that very program in primary school, which included a paper of sorts referring to George Orwell’s dystopic masterpiece, 1984.
If I were to hazard an attempt at defining reality TV, my definition would read something along the lines of: “A television program featuring real people in real situations (sometimes in real time) that encourages viewers to relate to what they are seeing on-screen.”
Candid Camera (1953-), a hidden camera/practical joke program, wasarguably the first reality TV program. Its popularity was partly due to simulation anxiety – “the inability to distinguish between the real and the manufactured in the age of technological reproduction” (Clissold, 2004, p.33). Surveilling people without their permission was part of the show’s identity. In some ways shows like Candid Camera were not only the precursor to surveillance reality TV like Big Brother, but also CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television).
Watching the CCTV footage employed as an investigatory tool by police in the tragic case of Jill Meagher is an unnerving experience because it brings up such contradictory feelings. It sounds twisted but it could be said that, through shows like Candid Camera, society has been groomed to get off on the voyeuristic pleasures and entertainment value of even the most frightening and foreboding footage. Some see CCTV as the seemingly innocuous beginnings of Orwell’s prediction being realised – an incursion on privacy. But without it, some crimes may never be solved.
On a lighter note, more recently I’ve found myself indulging in The Farmer Wants a Wife – yes, you’re allowed to have a chuckle at that one. It rolls notions of what it means to be an “Aussie bloke”, gender roles and unabashed romantic cliches into one neat package. Another program that has captured my attention is Beauty and the Geek Australia, a show that brings together beautiful women and geeky men in the name of mutual benefit.
Both of these shows claim to represent “real life”, while not discounting the possibility of a fairytale ending. Surely this reality claim is the central premise of reality TV. Does anyone agree with me on this latter point? Frances Bonner does.
In her book, “Ordinary Television: Analyzing Popular TV”, Bonner explains that her use of the term “ordinary” is intended to be “…interchangeable with ‘everyday’, ‘familiar’, even ‘routine” (Bonner, 2003, p.29). Reality TV has certainly become that. It’s everywhere, and comes in a variety of familiar formats.
Bonner asserts that both reality TV and lifestyle programming (e.g. advice programs about finance, gardening, cooking, chat/talk shows, breakfast shows) “…operate as non-fiction” (Bonner, 2003, p.3). But she doesn’t do so without the necessarily lengthy explanation. Reality and lifestyle programming, she says, share the central claim that what they depict has “…a reasonably direct relationship with ‘real life’” (Bonner, 2003, p.3).
In 2012, a time when much “unscripted programming” requires a team of dedicated writers, directors and an army of stylists, “non-fiction” is an even more problematic term. Reality TV and notions of “reality” in general occupy murky territory – a strange middle-ground between fact and fiction.
J. Ryan Stradal is an American writer who has worked on shows including Ice Road Truckers and The Deadliest Catch. In a reveal-all piece, “Unscripted does not mean Unwritten”, published on the Writers Guild of America, West website, Stradal explains that a lot of so-called reality TV is anything but “unscripted”.
“Hundreds of hours of footage are shot to make a single hour of reality television, and the final cut ultimately is very similar in its narrative structure to scripted television. There is a beginning, middle, and end, with character development, goals, conflict, and resolution. If you’ve ever been pulled into watching a reality series, it’s for the same reasons you get invested in scripted TV: sympathetic characters, interesting settings, and a sequence of events that provokes, edifies, and/or entertains” (Stradal, 2012).
The fact is that some reality programming is, in fact, quite the opposite. In 2004, Hollywood writers really ruined the illusion by demanding a greater cut of profits earned by reality TV. The rapid increase in reality shows occupying primetime slots was the justification used by the writers of shows including The Simple Life (2003-2007) and Meet My Folks (2002-).
Even in a situation where people featuring in reality TV have not been given explicit “direction” in the purest sense, John Corner says the presence of cameras is enough to alter a person’s behaviour. In “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions”, Corner focuses an analysis on the reality game show format, particularly the Big Brother franchise:
“…Big Brother operates its claims to the real within a fully managed artificiality, in which almost everything that might be deemed to be true about what people do and say is necessarily and obviously predicated on the larger contrivance of their being in front of the camera in the first place” (John Corner in “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions” (Corner, 2009, p.45).
Reality game shows like Big Brother, The Farmer Wants a Wife and Beauty and the Geek show a series of essentially “real” events. Those things may well have happened, but the context framing them must not be forgotten. For example, Michael did cry when he saw a video message from his older brother last week on Channel Nine’s revamped version of Big Brother. The implied question I take from Corner’s paper is whether Michael would have behaved in the same manner without a camera in his face?
Big Brother contestant Michael sheds a tear.
It’s impossible to know, but to paraphrase Michael himself: “I feel like I’m being an idiot, because I mean It’s only been two months. I’ve gone six months without seeing him, but time just slows down in here [the Big Brother house].” Judging by that statement, had he been leading a normal life for those two months, I suspect he would not have broken down. He probably would have thought it strange to receive a recorded message from a relative. Facebook may well offer that function now, but it’s still weird and I have never used it.
Corner’s argument about the camera’s tendency to change and shape what is occurring before it in Big Brother has a strong correlation to a key criticism of the “fly-on-the-wall” observational documentary. In “‘A Fiction (Un)Like Any Other’?”, Corner says that the techniques used to “narrativise” a documentary, further emphasise the age-old issue “…concerning the viewer’s ability to tell the difference [between actual events and contrivances]” (Corner, 2006, p.93).
Corner reduces this potential confusion about what is real and what is not down to a question of ethics. Should viewers be shown anything fabricated that purports to be representative of “real life”? It’s a tough one, but I think contemporary consumers of reality TV are wising up to the truth of the matter – that reality TV isn’t always what it may claim to be.
Another aspect of Big Brother’s contrived nature that must be considered is the editing process. Michael crying was deemed worthy of inclusion in the “Big Brother Daily Show” by someone. Can a 20-60 minute program that shows only carefully selected events (presumably from 24 hours of material) capture what is “real” without skewing audience perception? It can’t possibly.
British journalist and parody king Charlie Brooker illustrates this point perfectly as part of his BBC4 TV series Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe. Here’s Brooker on reality TV editing:
Using Big Brother as his poorly disguised example, Brooker shows that by capturing action from multiple camera angles, even the most banal sequence of events can be made to mean almost anything in post-production.
The fact is, even television news stories can be highly fabricated. Do you really think that that academic casually typing on their computer is working and not typing something like “playful otters” into Google? I have little doubt that beforehand the producer would have said, or at least been thinking, something along the lines of: “it will make great overlay if we can get them to do this“. Some TV news stories even incorporate actors. Gasp! My friend Annie has played a victim of cyber-bullying on multiple occasions for multiple channels.
Critics of reality television must come to terms with the fact that the genre is not going the way of the dodo any time soon. We may as well have fun with it. Who knows, maybe in 50 years or so, docusoaps like Jersey Shore (2009-) and The Real Housewives of…(wherever) will be labelled as “classics”. Anyway, Shakespeare is overrated.
If the “realness” of even one of the long list of reality TV formats can be brought into question, surely a re-naming of the genre is in order? Reputed Hollywood reporter and media columnist Ray Richmond is pushing for just that. “Partially scripted television” is his term of choice. Doesn’t have a great ring to it, does it? “Sort of Real TV”, maybe…or what about “Reality(ish) TV”? If it was up to me, I’d go for this one: “Quasi-Reality TV”.