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.”
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.
In “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions”, John 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 show formats like Big Brother, The Farmer Wants a Wife and Beauty and the Geek may well 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?
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.
Another aspect of the show’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.
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? “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”.