In the sci-fi Novel The Prize of Peril (1958), by Robert Sheckley, a television show has a volunteer contestant hunted for a week by trained killers, with a large cash prize if he survives. 1 It is fairly remarkable that this programming idea has remained fictional. But there is a real genre of lunacy that comes close, in which everyday 2 human beings volunteer to become subjects in (purportedly unscripted) filmed battles for enormous prizes (and often instant celebrity), and in the process enjoy physical torment and other hideous punishments. 3 There is intense competition to be selected to be part of all this. 4
Some of the greatest moments have been captured on a website of the “VH1 40 Greatest Moments”. They include Survivor - Boston Rob proposes to Amber in All-Star finale. Big Brother 2 - Roommate cleans toilet with toothbrush etc. As a Forbes magazine article subtitle goes: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the television audience.” 5
This genre has existed more or less since TV began, but really took off in the 1990s, and then went stellar in the new millennium. If you have an infernal cerebellum-melting DSTV subscription you will know only too well how various subgenres have spawned. Why is there suddenly so much of it around?
It all has to do with broadcasting market dynamics. Established broadcasters have needed to invent new ways of keeping a mass audience and holding onto key market segments with intensifying competition from cable or satellite TV. The best ways of doing this have been through programming formats that are cheap and very low risk. The previous successes of the syndicated programmes in other markets eliminate a lot of the uncertainty around probable audience ratings and the related profitability from advertising revenues. Reality TV also cuts out many of the costs of paid writers of actors, rehearsals, and sophisticated sets. “Ordinary” people and waning celebrities are cheap to cast and they are not unionised. Typically, an hour-long drama can cost approximately $1.5m per hour, whereas reality programmes can cost as little as $200,000 per hour. 6 With the cable and satellite channels having jumped on the no-brainer (in so many senses) formula, we can expect even more ubiquitous reality programming going forward.
The relationship to commercial reality is extremely clear. It is simple market logic that has resulted in this remarkable proliferation of shite.
But Reality TV has a much more complicated relationship to the rest of reality, as most of us suspected. 7
The creator of Survivor avoids the word “reality” altogether, preferring “unscripted drama”. 8 Fundamentally, it must attract viewers and advertising revenue, and to do this, it needs to be highly sensationalised and very stimulating, which reality more often than not, is not at all, unless you are supplementing it heavily. Slavoj Žižek 9 recounts a version of reality drama in which things really were left to reality to tell the tale. This genuinely unscripted narrative was, predictably, a completely soporific flop. The characters followed the boring rules of normal social interaction, washed the dishes, chatted about trivia, and nothing even minimally irregular happened. 10
Reality TV is as real as governance in many African countries. There is much misleading editing going on, with anachronistic information combined to create artificial chronologies, and participant behaviours reconstructed and mis-portayed. Highly deliberate lighting and camera techniques are used to allow us to begin to despise certain participants more than we might naturally. 11 Certain sequences are re-shot under circumstances in which things didn’t go as planned. There is scripting and storylining and sometimes even paid actors are involved to keep things on track.
We should ask ourselves what is partially “real” about it, though, or what elements of the social real does it foreground?
Voyeurism is an obvious diagnosis of the dynamic and one that is a bit dull, because as Freud shows us, the voyeur also longs to be seen, 12 and in this situation, as we sit flabbily rapt, the excitement of being seen is completely absent, other than when a fictional “me” is pseudo-addressed directly through the camera. So what is the situation, if not voyeurism? Obviously it differs per programme and comes in endless flavours, but there are some recurring elements.
Privation is one of the key elements of many of these programmes, especially the Big Brother and Survivor types. And why do we love it? What is enjoyable about seeing others denied of what we may consider basic necessities and trivial pleasures? And why would it equally not be at all enjoyable to install webcams in UNICEF refugee camps and see people struggling for survival or escaping despots? The unreality and temporary nature of the deprivation is what makes it work on TV. We revel in their longing, knowing it is safe (there are camera people just metres away). We are able to rediscover pleasure with them in modern pleasures as if for the first time. RTV is a vicarious form of remembering our ascent to “civilisation” and consumerism. We are able to approach the wretched fear of a state of nature, the brutal real, and then be lifted from it again into the relative sumptuousness of a safe living room.
By far the worst aspect of the situation for me, and possibly the one that most approximates reality, is the horror of the inescapable other that these programmes create. This is particularly true in Survivor and Big Brother. There is no moment other than when they go gathering slugs alone that they can introspect, zone out, and escape the endless politics and insecurity. No one can ever speak freely, other than in some false form to the nosy camera that delights in scandalous snippets, backstabbing, malice and scheming. This artificial society allows us to encounter our latent fear and loathing of the other. One has in this micro-society an intensified look at the thin and subtle veneer of civilisation that covers over dangerous impulses and keeps us from tearing each other to pieces. Ben Elton parodies the situation in Dead Famous (2001) where a contestant is murdered while on a Big Brother-like show. 13
Then there is the satisfaction of the vote. It evokes dread and yet we dearly want people thrown out. We have opportunity to fantasise about going over to an irritating co-worker and announcing “the tribe has spoken”. We would love the raw consensus that would reduce overcrowding and detoxify our social world. There is some schadenfreude in knowing that it is not us being kicked out. We have the ultimate “immunity idol” — that of omniscience and externality. TV would give us the satisfaction of seeing the weeding out of the nasty elements that we do not have in our actual lives, if only it were not for the fact that likeable and capable contestants often get eliminated early for strategic reasons.
And “strategy” is indeed a key element, and place where we notice the biggest differences between reality TV and reality an sich, to the extent that we are permitted to utter such a phrase in these times. Under RTV conditions, identity is recreated in a fictitious state of suspended society. 14 Strategy shows us how much complexity we live with in daily life, and gives us a glimpse of the unimaginable world beyond the norms that smooth things over and allow us to find community. In this sense, the strategy in reality TV offers us angst (by raising terrifying things) and relief from the angst (it is just a game). The ugliness of strategy is that everyone is caught in the stressful (and quite unreal) situation of not wanting to be too popular and/or powerful at the risk of being identified as a threat. The contestants are clever enough to quickly vote off those who impede their chances of winning, not the weak ones. The camera partially establishes a more normal form of social consensus, as contestants reveal their personal preferences and judgements to us and then decide on their (often contradictory) strategies. As Ian Buchanan points out, “this reveals the inner truth of Nietzsche's seemingly paradoxical axiom that it is the strong who must be protected from the weak”. 15
And what kinds of people volunteer? Are they really anything like the rest of us? Research on applicants to reality programmes shows that they are significantly different to a control group of non-volunteers. They are much more extrovert than the average person, for a start, more attention-seeking, and more impulsive, and do not tend to think through the consequences of their actions. They react to stress and pressure by dominating and intimidating others. They tend to be people that push limits, and are dramatic and self-promoting. They strongly value public acknowledgement and are driven by being the centre of attention. They are more lively and flirtatious, and have a strong need for fun and attention. 16
Correspondingly, when the British Big Brother third series was recruiting, it was reported that a definite theme emerged in the tapes sent in for audition: There was a great deal of nudity. People on the sofa nude, playing football nude, running down the street nude, one man naked except for an accordion in a field full of cows, a naked girl smearing mud on her body, lots of women with tassels on their breasts doing stripping routines, a man jumping about on a pogo stick naked. 17 Shy and reasonable people probably know they will not make interesting TV subjects. As Bazalgette puts it: “There are three crucial factors in the production of Big Brother: casting, casting and casting.” 18 A volatile cocktail of these warped personalities is deliberately shaken together in the hope of exciting drama and tension.
An important unanswered question remains, and it is both an aesthetic and a moral question: Should or should we not watch it?
It may have a positive impact in some respects, contributing to democratisation and liberalisation. In the Arab world, men and women lived together, shockingly, in Star Academy Arab World, 2003. One protester said: “This programme is a threat to Islam — it is entertainment for animals”. 19 In China, the local version of Pop Idol — The Mongolian Cow Sour Yoghurt Super Girl Contest (for real) — was considered “a force for democracy” 20 after drawing an audience of 400 million people who sent approximately eight million text votes. To reinforce the democratic diagnosis, the Chinese government criticised the show for vulgarity and in 2006 they banned it. 21
Ethically though, reality TV does seem to legitimise and normalise humiliation and brutalisation. My favourite example is Bridalplasty. Even the name is repugnant. If you have not yet had the pleasure, it's a show where brides-to-be compete for extreme surgical procedures. The winner appears completely remodelled and upgraded on her wedding day to be seen again by her astonished groom for the first time.
Research on these types of “makeover” programmes shows how they have a detrimental effect on women’s self-esteem. The ridiculous aesthetic ideals do get internalised. Emaciated thighs, stupefying breasts, Barbie doll noses. Amazingly, seeing women incapacitated and in bandages doesn’t result in revulsion, but in more favourable attitudes towards cosmetic surgery and body procedures. It also results in perceived pressure personally to have cosmetic surgery, as well as overall body dissatisfaction and more disordered eating. 22 Can these shows actually be considered entertainment?
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But the people who watch these programmes are by no means from the lower orders of intelligence and social status. They have been shown to be relatively affluent. 23 They are also fairly highly educated. Altogether 51% of students claimed to be regular watchers. They are also not passive and gullible consumers, but have been trained over decades to consume and decode the genre. According to scholar Annette Hill they watch with a critical eye, judging the degree of factuality in each reality format based on norms and semiotics of the genre.
My most optimistic fantasy is that watching reality television is like peering into a scale model of the social psyche. It creates a space to reflect on modern living, and at some level is a unifying force that cuts across ethnic and class divisions. It creates secular democratic citizens of humanity. We relate any of the characters to our own experiences and values, and use them continually and collectively to refine our consensual moral judgements, exploring the meaning of authenticity and identity, and making sense of ourselves.
But frankly the scepticism towards this cheap programming format and the discomfort at the content overrides such considerations. It rattles one to see people eating buffalo penises. It provokes and offends to see women competing for liposuction. It is sordid to see people caught lying to their spouses. And the fact that this discomfort is partially the whole, moneymaking point is distasteful. "I like to make a show where people say, ‘You can't put that on TV'," says Mike Fleiss, creator of The Bachelor series. "Then I put it on TV."
Switch that thing off and use all those hours to do some of your own cooking, renovate your own house, dance with your own partner, read Kafka, learn to play the violin, listen to 1920’s opera highlights. Life is too exquisitely short for caring whether, after winning a luxury challenge, the black team ate a fancy (read: fattening) meal complete with double tequila shots and paid for it big time in the gym and at the weigh-in, where they lost a combined total of 18 pounds. That was enough to beat the blue team, which is so totally not fair. And also that it was makeover week, meaning all the girls with short hair got extensions, and all the girls with long hair got pixie cuts. Fo was this season's complainer, after a hairstylist cropped her locks and stole her femininity. Hasn't she ever watched this show before? If they chop your hair, it means The Tyra likes your cheekbones. Fo's bad attitude landed her in the bottom two, but Jessica's cocky attitude had her packing.
1 It was adapted in 1970 as the TV movie Das Millionenspiel, and again in 1983 as the movie Le Prix du Danger .
2 I have noticed they are increasingly un-average in terms of physique, attractiveness etc. All obviously better for ad revenue.
3 See especially the Japanese “batsu games ” or punishment games from the 1980s and 1990s.
4 In 2007, according to the Learning and Skills Council , one in seven UK teenagers hoped to gain fame by appearing on reality television."Jaded". The Economist: pp. 57. January 27, 2007.
6 Annette Hill, Reality TV (London, 2005), p6.
7 Mark Burnett in "Surviving and thriving" . The Age (Melbourne). November 13, 2003.
10 The Real Cancun (2003) was the first ever "reality movie". It featured sixteen people on an eight-day beachfront villa holiday in Cancun. The “NO SCRIPTS. NO ACTORS. NO RULES. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN ON SPRING BREAK, AND IT DID" production tried to “let life itself write the story" and ended up in a mass of material out of which the studio experts tried to craft a short post-hoc coherent narrative, and the result was a movie none of us have heard of that grossed under $4 million. From Žižek, Slavoj A Cup of Decaf Reality.
11 2004, VH1 ; Reality TV Secrets Revealed. Sorry for those of you who believe that Rick and Kasey really fell in love, but participants are coached to act in specific scripted ways by off-screen "story editors" or "segment producers", with everything manipulated and contrived to create an illusion of reality through editing and other clever post-production techniques.
12 Freud, Lacan.
13 As it turns out, it was not an act of misanthropic rage by another contestant, but carried out by the producer in order to attract increased ratings for the show.
14 Enjoying 'Reality TV'. Ian Buchanan.
16 Research by Nicola Taylor and Kevin Meyer of JVR (Jopie van Rooyen) Consulting, Johannesburg, Presented at SIOPSA Conference, 2009.
17 Jean Ritchie, Inside Big Brother, Jean Ritchie, Big Brother: The Official Unseen Story (London, 2000), p29.
18 Peter Bazalgette, Billion Dollar Game: How Three Men Risked it all and Changed the Face of Television (London, 2005), p101, quoted in Colin Sparks, Reality TV: the Big Brother phenomenon by Colin Sparks, in International Socialism journal Issue: 114 , Posted: 9 April 07.
19 "Arab Big Brother show suspended" . BBC News. March 1, 2004.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3522897.stm .
20 Beijing Today quoted inDemocracy Idol" . The Economist. September 8, 2005. http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=4382469 .
21 Macartney, Jane (August 29, 2005). "TV talent contest “too democratic' for China's censors" . The Times (London).http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article560126.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=World .
22 Dr. Susan Albers, “Bridalplasty: Reality TV Hitting Rock Bottom? The dangers of televised plastic surgery “
Published on November 30, 2010 in Comfort Cravings .
23 James Poniewozik , “Why Reality TV Is Good for Us”, Time Magazine, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2003
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"Jaded". The Economist: pp. 57. January 27, 2007.
Booth, William ( 2004). "Reality Is Only An Illusion, Writers Say - Hollywood Scribes Want a Cut Of Not-So-Unscripted Series" . The Washington Post.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A53032-2004Aug9.html . Retrieved April 26, 2009.
Buchanan Ian, Enjoying “Reality TV”, published online.
"Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe - Reality TV Editing" . YouTube. February 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBwepkVurCI .
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Levin, Gary (May 8, 2007). "'Simple Economics': More Reality TV" . USA Today.
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Žižek, S., 1989.The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.
Žižek, S 1991 Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, Boston: MIT Press.