“Television was invented as a result of scientific and technical research. Its power as a medium of social communication was then so great that it altered many of our institutions and forms of social relationships. Its inherent properties as an electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of reality, and thence our relations with each other and with the world.”
Raymond Williams’ analysis of the awesome power of television seems to indicate that it is the guiding force in contemporary society. Certainly television has been responsible for the single greatest social revolution in western history. It is quite unthinkable now, in 2005, to conceive of a United Kingdom that is not centred on mass media and, specifically, the television set. It is sometimes worth remembering that television in the UK is barley seventy years old. If one tracks the evolution of television over that time, a discernible pattern emerges: society and television have grown up together.
Furthermore, the advent of television appears to have hastened the advancement of society. The technological achievements of the west in the past three generations have put into the shade everything that went before it. Likewise, television is unrecognisable from its early days of propaganda and BBC broadcasts. Yet the relationship is organic and reveals much about contemporary society.
For instance, to look at a television programme commissioned in the seventies is to gaze upon a piece of social history of the time. Not only do we witness aesthetics such as fashion and music tastes, but we also get a glimpse of existing political ideals, social mores and commonly held popular beliefs. It therefore comes as little surprise that contemporary twenty first century society should maintain a similarly symbiotic relationship with television. The specific challenge within this essay is to define and ascertain the power of a certain genre: reality television.
Our analogy of TV commissioned in the 1970’s, or indeed the 1980’s or 1990’s, cannot stand up to comparison with the phenomenon that is reality television. First and foremost, the stars of reality television are (predominantly) ordinary citizens who have either been selected to take part in the programme by the television producers or have won their place via a pre determined competition. Either way, the entire concept was, at the time, revolutionary and it constituted a clean break from every other type of popular entertainment that had hitherto been witnessed.
The first, and therefore the most revolutionary, of this new wave of programming was, of course, Big Brother, which first screened in the UK in the summer of 2000. The British producers, Endemol, had in fact purchased the rights from Dutch television where it had previously been a popular success. The concept was simple; the programme makers immediately saw a huge gap in the UK market for a real show about real people. Ten contestants were to contest the prize of £70 000 over a total of seven weeks, being whittled down, one by one, on a weekly basis.
“Strategically positioned cameras, two way mirrors and compulsorily microphones allowed viewers, through edited highlights (and Internet junkies for twenty four hours a day), to spy on their every move – even the bathroom was bugged. The overall intention, as the programme’s publicity candidly put it, was to provide ‘pore close TV’, studying personal interaction and human behaviour. Critics saw it instead as a descent into voyeurism.”
It is fair to say that neither the programme makers nor the players in the original game itself were aware quite how popular the show would become. The first round of contestants are not lying when they say that they had no idea as to the extent of the media attention surrounding each of their lives and were truly taken aback when they finally did emerge from the house in Bow, East London. The same cannot be said of every subsequent contestant of Big Brother. While the original cast can say that they appeared in the show as part of a broader sociological media experiment, each contestant since 2001 has gone into the programme with the aim of becoming famous and living off the proceeds of the programme. It is thus little surprise that the quality of the show has descended from genuine interest in real people to true voyeurism.
Moreover, as the contestants have become more vacuous and self centred, the intrinsic element of real human drama that made the first series such a success has been lost. The programme makers are clearly aware of this and have actively searched for contestants that are further and further away from society’s norm. Desperate to improve the season on season declining ratings, the producers have sunk to the depths of programming by attempting to coerce the contestants into having sex live on British television for the first time ever. That the feat was in fact achieved by the shorter teenage version of the show says everything about the essentially hollow nature of the programme and also the gravitation of the British television viewing public towards reality and sex.
Yet, whether the individual likes it or not, Big Brother certainly is a manifestation of our cultural ideals and its initial popularity hints at a very popular show that is a microcosm of contemporary British society. “The writers who mourn the supposed loss of a common culture are the same ones who tend to react in horror to the examples of large popular audiences which can still demonstrably be shown to exist. More than a decade after regular satellite broadcasting was introduced in the UK… Big Brother can become a phenomenon – ‘must see TV’, a rapidly archived moment of common culture.”
Keeping in line with the idea we earlier proposed about television mirroring society, it seems to be true that, as each new Big Brother series sinks lower in both ratings and morality, so the general popular media and society has followed suit. At this point we must turn our attention to the spate of reality programmes that followed hard on the heels of Big Brother to prove our point.
The notion of a ‘star’ has been a common feature of western society for a very long time. Even before Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart, heroes such as Lord Nelson were seen as stars in their own time and he was riotously mobbed wherever he went. Yet the concept of ‘celebrity’ is markedly different and is a discernibly post modern phenomenon. The key difference is this: whereas a star has captured the public imagination with acts of bravery or artistic brilliance, a celebrity does not require any skill at any occupation whatsoever. In fact it appears that having a talent only harms your chances of attaining true celebrity status. It is no exaggeration to claim that the modern twenty first century ‘celebrity’ in Britain cannot afford a job, as the level of media saturation required to get to the top is a seven day a week occupation in itself.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there were a series of lifestyle and fashion magazines that first hit newsstand shelves in the west, the most successful being publications like Vogue. There was little else on the subject of stars, not unless it was considered print media news. One glance at a news shelf in 2005 would reveal a very different picture. In some weeks a certain contestant of a reality television programme is on the cover of more magazines than the world’s biggest movie star. There has clearly been a fundamental shift in society’s thinking and, more importantly, society’s appetite for gossip. There is, without a doubt, a definite and clear link between the nation’s obsession with ‘celebrity’ and reality television. We therefore ought to examine the show that managed to combine the two to predictably successful effect, I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here.
“The concept of realism itself is – at least as far as academics are concerned – a relatively controversial one, as is shown by the fragmentation of the concept into more and more subdivisions.” The idea for I’m a Celebrity was again inordinately simple. The producers followed the reality TV model, which constitutes a twenty four hour Internet and digital television camera surveillance, in addition to daily broadcast television updates. The ‘action’ was relocated to Australia but involved the same task element that is a key feature of Big Brother – a tool deliberately devised to create solidarity and divisions within the group. Yet the true hook of the show was its marrying of celebrity and reality, albeit with celebrities that were of a low social status.
There is a definite link between I’m a Celebrity and the descent of contemporary society into obsession. The producers of programmes such as this have, in fact, little work to do. Their concern is to organise the programme budget and to entice the celebrities onto the programme, which is rarely difficult as the exposure they gain can re ignite careers that were completely extinguished. Peter Andre is a clear example of this phenomenon at work. Thus there is a mutual, harmonious relationship between the producers of the show, the contestants and the audience whereby each gets what they desire with a minimum effort pertaining to creativity and originality.
Pop Idol was likewise a similarly formulaic concept, but one which was different to Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity in terms of the prize on offer for the winner of the show. There was a small element of risk for the producers of this show, in so far as they had to gamble on the British public’s appetite for reality television by releasing songs recorded by the programme’s winners to compete with established pop acts. Perhaps the fact that Hear Say’s single arrived straight at Number One in the British charts says more about contemporary society than the reaction to any of the other reality TV shows because, knowing in advance the lack of musical talent of the contestants, in addition to the wholly vacuous nature of their ambition, the record was still bought in thousands.
The legacy of this was, essentially, the equivalent of carte blanche for reality television producers. The concrete example of the commercial musical success of a completely manufactured television game show pop group meant that there was obviously an insatiable desire for realism in the British public. Moreover, Pop Idol, Pop Star and each subsequent variation on the original theme has seeped into the music industry itself, which now requires a reality act to boost their own fledgling record sales.
If one takes a dim enough view of this, it could be concluded that reality TV and its offshoots are symptomatic of a deeper creative, artistic malaise gripping western culture because the ultimate truth behind the reality TV pop experience is that, if there were a sufficient number of talented and imaginative acts recording music, there would be no need for groups such as Girls Aloud in the first place.
Brat Camp has signalled yet another dimension of the reality genre and, again, we can see that its popularity is a manifestation of the general public’s viewing tastes. The key feature with regards to Brat Camp is the age group to which it gravitates and from where the programme selects each of its contestants. In terms of genesis, Brat Camp is a product of Channel Four’s Wife Swap conception, whereby there is an element of personal improvement at stake in each of the contestants that there is not in the case of Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity and Pop Star. From a neutral perspective, therefore, there is more interest in the personal progress of each of the contestants as, week by week, the audience sees them evolve in front of its eyes.
The fact that Brat Camp uses children as its stars is likewise a relatively new concept, even more so concerning that it is the parents who offer to send them to America to learn manners, discipline and order. The show is certainly popular. The ratings for 25 February 2005 show that Brat Camp attained 13.6% (3.26 million) of the highly contested nine pm watershed slot in British television.
Reality programmes such as Brat Camp and Wife Swap are symptomatic of a new wave of scheduling that speaks for a different section of contemporary British society. Whereas Big Brother tends to attract audiences from the teenage and twenty something sector, Brat Camp is as of much interest to the parents as it is to the teenagers on the show. Part of the secret to Brat Camp’s success is that the producers have not attempted to commission a study of teenage angst; rather they use the teenagers as the vehicles through which to voice adult concerns about society in general. Regardless, teenage centric programming is rarely a success. “Another reason we might feel insecure writing about teens is because, not only are we no longer adolescents ourselves, but we would also hate to fall into that ‘square’ category of trying to ‘understand’ teens, and getting it hopelessly wrong.”
Brat Camp is thus a more responsible form of programming that emphasises the need for a less selfish form of society built around traditional family structures. As a concept it could not be further away from Big Brother, whose producers stress selfishness, idolatry and shallow exhibitionism to pander to an audience that wishes it too could take part in the show. And herein lays the answer to the title of our essay.
Reality television is no different to any other television genre, especially now that it has had time to mature and diversify. Reality television targets certain demographics in the same way that the producers of Eastenders target a certain section of the population to boost its ratings. Big Brother is a valid study of only one part of society, namely young people. Brat Camp is a valid study of a completely different section of society, an older sector with different ambitions and social concerns. “The strength of British television is its diversity and pluralism.”
But what remains true across the genre is that reality television feeds off the general public’s tastes. The interests of television producers are thus no more than a reflection of the interests of the general public. It might seem inconceivable at present to think that the reality television genre will die out. Yet if the same question would have been posed in the 1980’s concerning American super soaps such as Dynasty it would have seemed similarly unfathomable that they too would lose their position of pre eminence, but that is exactly what has happened. And the same will be true of reality television.
For when the public desire for reality TV has expired and the producers find their funds have dried up, they will simply move on to whatever the latest fad may be. In this sense, the ultimate truth is that reality television is a passing symptom of a distinctly celebrity centric phase of society, and that television producers do not in fact dictate taste; rather they manoeuvre their schedules to suit what the public wishes to see.
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