Tag Archives: Showcase

[Showcase Post Two] Reality Television: Stranger Than Fiction?

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 BrotherThe 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”.


[Showcase Post One] Matters of Taste: Fandom and Reviewing

I can’t profess to having delved extensively into the fantasy genre. Aside from recognising some of its dominant tropes – which include magic, sword battles, supernatural creatures and sorcerers – my knowledge is relatively limited.

There are fantasy texts widely considered to be classics. The first that come to mind, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, are originally book series that have subsequently been adapted into films. Loved for their elaborate plot lines, fantastical settings and  iconic characters, both have a loyal fan following*.

Look out! “Trekkies”!

Originally a term reserved for sports and theatre, “fandom” was adopted by science fiction literature enthusiasts (Coppa, 2006, p.42). It was only in the 1960s, upon the arrival of Star Trek, that it became commonplace to talk of “fans” of TV shows.

It is hard to define exactly what it means to be a fan, because there are so many different levels of engagement. An in-class brainstorm during the week six lecture on “Matters of Taste” resulted in a number of common themes:

  • Fans are passionate and care deeply about the object of their fannish attention.
  • Fans often document their thoughts in some form.
  • Fans are actively engaged – possibly even producing fan fiction.
  • Fans often have their own interpretations.

In the same session, lecturer Brian Morris touched on the importance of the internet in modern television fan culture. Online, fans can undertake a range of activities, from interpreting storylines and alternative readings on forums, to extending a show’s storytelling world by creating fan fiction (Morris, 2012).

Loyal is perhaps the understatement of the century when it comes to fantasy fans, but they are not the only “fanstremists” in the television world. To name but some of the die-hard fan communities connected to specific TV programs (courtesy TV Tropes, 2012):

  • “Trekkies” (Star Trek 1966-1969])
  • “Gleeks” (Glee [2009-])
  • “Robot Skeleton Army” (Craig Ferguson and The Late Late Show [2005-)
  • “Babblers” or “Fivers” (Babylon 5 [1994-1998])
  • “Wingnuts” (The West Wing [1999-2006])
  • “Browncoats” or “Flans” (Firefly [2002-2003])
  • “X-Philes” (The X-Files [1993-2002])
  • “Whovians” or “Wholigans” (Doctor Who [1963-1989 & 2005-])
  • “Dwarfers” and “Smegheads” (Red Dwarf [1988-]

There are even individual actors who have devoted followings with colourful names: “Cumberbitches” or “Cucumbers” (Benedict Cumberbatch [Sherlock]), “Smilers” (Miley Cyrus [Hannah Montana]), and my personal favourite – “Fillionaires” (Nathan Fillion [Firefly, Castle]).

I’m a Fillionaire.

If recent talk is anything to go by, Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-) is destined to earn the “classic” tag. Because the series is relatively new, a name for its fans is yet to be decided.

This indecision manifests as an amiable “broken base” situation (a term for when a division exists between two schools of fan thought) on the pages of well-known television discussion website Television Without Pity. Here, Game of Thrones fans identify as being in one of two categories: those that have read the books by George R. R. Martin upon which the series is based (“Bookwalkers”), or those that haven’t (the “Unsullied”). It’s curious that, unlike in a typical broken base environment, these groups do not infight with one another (given time, I predict dissent in the ranks). The one exception, so I’m told, is when a Bookwalker drops a spoiler.

Broken base is just one of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions), of terms used in the fan world. You’d have to be a genius to keep track of even half of these often obscure, usually very specific words. Cue the emergence of fan culture and fandom as a legitimate field of academic inquiry.

Possibly the best known fan culture academic is Henry Jenkins, a current MIT communications professor fascinated by the relationship between “text” and reader. His well-trafficked blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan is a good place to start if, like me, you are new to the concept of fandom. “Aca-fan”, you may ask? Media studies academic Matt Hills is credited with coining the term, also referred to as “scholar-fan” (Hills, 2002, p.41), in his 2002 book Fan Cultures. On his blog, Jenkins supplies this definition: “…a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic” (Jenkins, 2012). I read the following sentence as a tidy mission statement for all of Jenkins’ life’s work: “The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds” (Jenkins, 2012).

Not everyone is in favour of “aca-fandom”. Jenkins sees it as a means of affirming the importance of the consumer point-of-view in academia. Some academics consider the term to be rather problematic. Jenkins has published a series of blog posts that invite various academics to have their say in an aca-fandom “debate” of sorts.

Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley Abigail De Kosnik had this to say: “I conceive of “acafan” [sic] as a term that designates a certain professionalism, a certain demeanor (a “seeming”) of critical distance, a certain coolness and calmness in discussing all the many facets and valences of fandom” (De Kosnik in Jenkins, 2012).

De Kosnik’s connection of aca-fandom with “critical distance” is one of the issues at the heart of the debate. It implies “objectivity”.

Media and Cultural Studies professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison Jonathan Gray questions this aca-fan assumption: “I don’t believe anyone who tries to tell me that their choice of what to study and how to study isn’t deeply informed by their own personal likes and dislikes” (Gray in Jenkins, 2012).

To put it bluntly, Gray doesn’t see how aca-fans can claim to be able to separate their own fannish tendencies from their academic work. This brings the “superiority”/”authority” of aca-fans over “regular” fans into serious question.

“Dallas”: A fan tells it like it is on TV fan site “Television Without Pity”

By way of moving on, a truism: academic or otherwise, fans know what they do and do not like. If the material on the abundance of fan websites is anything to go by, they don’t mind telling everyone all about it either.

The screening of the Game of Thrones pilot in week six was my first look at television’s latest craze. As you have probably ascertained by now, I am one of the Unsullied.

“Dude, have you seen Game of Thrones?” 

That’s a question I’m often asked, both inside and outside the context of this subject. Usually I answer truthfully with a cautious: “No, but I’m planning on it.” Which I am. Not since the emergence of a certain boy wizard have I felt this much pressure to be more than just familiar with a cultural product.

For me, reading the early reviews Game of Thrones was thus akin to examining the thoughts of The Age‘s Philippa Hawker or Jake Wilson before going to see a newly released movie. I not only found myself using reviewers’ words to build my knowledge of the show’s premise, but also to gain an idea of its likely audience. One thing was immediately apparent – some loved it and some hated it. But it didn’t stop there. The fans came out to play.

Female “Game of Thrones” fan Amy Ratcliffe lets fly at Ginia Bellafante’s review of the program.

Yes. Reviewing can be a dangerous game.

As Myles McNutt points out in his blog post ‘Questions of Taste: Dissecting the Dissection of Early Reviews’, things get even dicier when reviews start getting reviewed. The spat that broke out within the reviewing world regarding Game of Thrones was enough to rival any showdown between the Fellowship and the orcs. At its proverbial heart is Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times piece, ‘A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms’.

The key point of contention is Bellafante’s assertion that overt eroticism is included in the show as “…something for ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” I’m quite new to media studies, but that sounds like a wild generalisation to me. However, I can see how Bellafante arrived at this point of view…

As David Barnett says in his Guardian article Game of Thrones: Girls want to play too”, it is common, but wrong to assume that the fantasy genre is nothing more than “boy fiction”.

Critics of Bellafante’s piece accuse her of ignoring the existence of female fantasy fans, patronising her female readers and blatant inaccuracy. Her proclamation that illicitness is something that has been “…tossed in” implies that it is unfounded and removed from, or even irrelevant to narrative. This is simply not the case according to Barnett, who enthusiastically reports that “…the source material has plenty of bonking”.

Maybe it’s my RMIT-induced tendency to “question everything”, but while watching the pilot I cringed at the portrayal of women – the submissive wife, the daughter with only marriage on her mind, the “wenches” and forced marriages.

Admittedly, I have only seen one episode and am expecting one or two woman-to-warrior scenarios. It must also be said that the show’s “mediaeval-esque” setting demands a patriarchal setup.

Having heard what seems like hundreds of positive testimonies about Game of Thrones from friends and family, I’m wondering how many of them even knew this “review war” was going on. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say no. Even if they did, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make, if any, to their experience and enjoyment of the show.

This is a sign of the times.

We are constantly bombarded by the opinions of every Tom, Dick and Harriet via social media. In a recent talk at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the aforementioned Philippa Hawker voiced her uncertainty about the future of her profession. The opinions of even the most influential and respected reviewers now carry almost equal weight to those of, for example, my mate Geoff on Facebook who says: “GAME OF THRONES ROCKS! SO ADDICTED!!”. Are the readers of professional reviews the same people who are likely to want to check out a given show? I’m not so sure anymore.

* Online hubs for Lord of the Rings and Narnia fans include: Narnia Web (narniaweb.com) and the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Network (lordotrings.com).