Fear the quantity, not quality of reality TV
NOWADAYS, seldom a day passes without some cultural commentator detecting more sad evidence of further dumbing-down in the media.
Of particular concern has been the proliferation of "reality programming" which has come to the fore in the past decade. The burden of the lament is that most of these programmes have little to do with reality as we know it and are conceived essentially as lightweight entertainment vehicles. The charge is that, as we surrender ourselves to all this easily digestible pap, we are - to use Neil Postman’s telling phrase - in danger of "amusing ourselves to death".
The counter-view is that the popularity of the new reality formats indicates a welcome change of tack on the part of television producers, who have succeeded in breathing new life into tired TV genres. Those who take this view positively welcome the fact that factual TV, with its emphasis on accessibility, is finding a much wider audience than hitherto.
Any attempt to trace the evolution of "reality programming" must begin by acknowledging this factual "renaissance" clearly reflects changes which have occurred in the broadcasting environment.
Following the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the various styles of factual TV programming became subject to rigorous performance criteria. All programmes had to earn their place in the schedule. Slowly but surely, new factual brands came on stream, which displayed distinctly audience-friendly traits. In the wake of established action-packed reality formats (Cops or America’s Most Wanted), we witnessed the apparently inexorable rise of the docu-soap.
Here was a TV genre which proved an immediate ratings winner, combining as it did some of the undisputed attractions of soap opera (larger-than-life characters strutting their stuff on the television stage), with the assurance that it was all rooted in real-life ordinariness.
With docu-soaps, producers came up with a hybrid form which not only achieved high ratings, but which could be "sold" to commissioning editors on account of relatively low production costs. This was all grist to TV executives’ mill, since this was the age when programme makers were coming under enormous pressure to reduce production costs and to deliver material against ever-tighter deadlines.
Docu-soaps proved in the late 1990s to be something of a seven-day (more accurately three-and-a-half-year) wonder. They quickly lost their high profile, to be replaced by the feistier reality game-docs like Survivor and Big Brother. Though critics like Germaine Greer have railed against such shows, declaring them to be indicative of a deep cultural malaise, they can also be seen as brilliantly innovative television. Skilfully exploiting the new interactive technologies, they have succeeded in capturing audience attention in much the same way as 1930s radio soap opera. Nevertheless, we still have to be aware that much of the success of Big Brother-type shows is down to their shaping and staging the "real", in ways largely determined by television producers.
People who appear in these shows are chosen primarily for their performance potential. Producers of factual programming are no longer so much interested in producing a warts-and-all exposure of reality; their concern is to win viewers over to a world that television itself creates.
As a consequence of this, the status of those who participate in the diverse forms of factual programming has also changed. They have become television performers in their own right. There has been much speculation as to why we should have become so hooked on watching celebrity-hungry individuals letting it all hang out on the television stage, but performance is very definitely the name of the game.
A recent study conducted by the Stirling Media Research Institute threw some light on just how far we have gone in demanding that participants demonstrate performance ability. On the basis of extensive interviews with participants and producers, it was discovered that some 53 per cent of those who had become involved in factual TV programmes had already appeared in at least one other TV show. Folk who were being introduced to the viewing public as "People Like You and Me" were, in fact, semi- professionalised performers, many of whom - having tasted their 15 minutes of television fame - were now keen to go on and extract additional mileage out of their recently acquired celebrity status.
So far, we have avoided the worst excesses of US reality shows, with their penchant for ghoulishness and their predilection for victim humiliation. Also - and this is a key point - we should never underestimate audiences’ ability to see through the blatantly constructed nature of much that is served up as "reality".
A source of greater concern is that adjustments continue to be made to the TV schedules. The more challenging forms of factual programming are being pushed to the margins of the schedule. While we may welcome ITV’s decision this week to include a bold expos by John Pilger on American double standards and deceit in George Bush’s "war on terror", the fact that the programme went out in a 10:45pm slot hardly suggests such programmes are being given the scheduling priority they deserve.
Richard Kilborn is a senior lecturer in the department of film and media studies at Stirling University. His new book, Staging the Real: Factual TV Programming in the Age of Big Brother is published this month by Manchester University Press.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 12 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: South east
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: West