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Is Reality T.V. Finally Dead?



Just when I think it’s gone away for good the institution that is Big Brother shows up for a new series. Of all the reality TVshows Big Brother seems to be the epitome of the form and as such tends to polarise people’s opinions; some lap it up in all its tacky, processed glory while others look down on it as a dreadful symbol of celebrity-obsessed youth culture. But where did this phenomenon begin?


The prototype began back in 1973 with a documentary television series called An American Family which chronicled the lives of the Loud family in Santa Barbara. An English version followed in 1978 with The Family and in 1992 came Sylvian Waters from Australia. Billed as a real-life soap opera, this was shot over a six-month period by a camera crew who lived with the participating family. Drinking problems, racism, materialism and domestic disputes provided the drama and these issues were then widely discussed in the Australian media. Just like scripted soap operas such as Neighbours, Sylvian Waters reflected the viewer’s lives but the difference was that this was really happening; the people were not actors. This idea of watching ‘ordinary, real people’ instead of actors or celebrities was key to the Reality TV formula at this stage in its development.


If you look back even further roots of the Big Brother phenomenon can also be found in sociological experiments which psychologists were carrying out in the sixties. The most famous of these involved a participant, under instructions from the scientists, giving increasingly severe electric shocks to a fellow ‘lab rat’. Despite the cries of pain from the victim, the participant continued to obey the scientists’ cruel instructions rather than refuse to continue or question their own actions. As sick as this experiment sounds you must remember that the real victim of the set up was the one giving the shocks because the ‘victim’ was in fact not receiving any shocks at all; the screams were just acted out.


Of course in ‘Big Brother’ the motivation is primarily to entertain rather than to explore the darker sides of our make up but human nature being what it is, some interesting psychological reactions and motivations can’t help but arise in the process. It was this psychological element which mostly drew me to watch the programme when it first appeared on British TV in 2000. When watching Big Brother you become a bit like those scientists from the sixties – you may not have set up the experiment but as a viewer you are a willing participant, a link in the chain, and this can at times make you feel a little grubby. This feeling is mitigated by the reasoning that everybody in the house is there by their own choice and anyway, in the end it’s only a glorified game show, ‘just a bit of fun.’


This groundbreaking first series certainly lived up to expectations as the relentless scrutiny of the cameras provoked some housemates to exhibit fascinating personality traits. One of them in particular demonstrated a ruthless desire to win which manifested as a strange compulsion to lie to about himself. (This lead to him being dubbed ‘Nasty Nick’ by the programme makers in a glorious nod to the pantomimic quality of the programme). Now the drama taking place in the house had a villain and the story suddenly became more interesting. Nasty Nick’s lies seemed to come from the awareness that he was on a T.V. show and if he wanted to win he needed to present an image of himself which would make him the most interesting housemate. The programme makers must have been rubbing their hands with glee; the experiment was finally delivering some interesting results and once started they just kept on coming. Nasty Nick could have backed down and come clean about his original lie but something made him stand by it. Of course the more he did this the more humiliating his expose would have been be so he was forced to keep on compounding his deception with more lies.


We’ve seen this scenario happen with politicians such as Nixon and Clinton where the press have accused them of something and they become quite self righteous in their denial of it. In such cases the desperate commitment to the lie is finally exposed by the weight of undeniable evidence. (It’s quite comforting to know that even the most powerful men on the planet can’t stop the truth from coming out in the end!) What went on in their minds must have been similar to Nasty Nick in his TV web of deceit; it's almost as if to save face they convinced themselves that their lies are true. The beauty of this programme is that, unlike with the deceitful presidents, viewers had direct evidence of the lie; we knew the truth because the cameras had shown us. Being witnesses made us involved in the whole charade and this made the ‘real life’ drama even more fascinating.


I have totally forgotten what Nasty Nick lied about (such is the throw away nature of reality TV) but it wasn’t the subject of his lie that was interesting but the fact that he lied at all, especially when he knew that the cameras were catching his every deception. When pressed on this subject in a post eviction interview nasty Nick’s answer was that he didn’t really know why he did it, it was as if he’d got swept up in the whole game and it was out of his control. This was exactly the same response as the participants in the original experiments from the sixties who had acted in such surprising ways. In a way, through his behaviour in the house, Nasty Nick himself had exposed a lie about this new form of entertainment. He had shown that reality TV wasn’t actually ‘real’, because the set up of the experiment and the mere act of being observed influences the participant’s behaviour.


Viewers began to realise that the ‘real people’ on this type of show were turned into untrained actors; every bit as mindful of their ‘performance’ on camera as a soap actor. Add to this the fact that the ‘real life’ which the cameras were filming may have been impartially observed by automatic cameras on the wall but it wasn’t being impartially displayed when it was transmitted to the public. Real life has a lot of ‘boring bits’ in it and the programme makers knew that the public were not interested in watching something which they have enough of it in their own lives! The viewers wanted the ‘juicy bits’ in which personalities rubbed up against each other and so the editors cut out the boring bits and in so doing started guiding and shaping the story which was presented. So in the end Big Brother became the pretence of real life created from what the participants acted out in front of the camera and what the editors selected in the cutting room.


As time went on Big brother and programmes like it became more and more stage managed to produce outrageous stories and displays of emotions. Gradually any pretence that it was ‘real’ faded away; what was left was a collusion between the makers of those programmes and the audience, the suspension of disbelief. The show may not have been ‘real’ but it was so titillating emotionally that it didn’t matter.


So here we are forty years on and the public must still be giving Big Brother its vote because here it is back on our screens again. I watched the opening episode out of curiosity to see what this phenomenon had become in its old age. It was the celebrity version, which in the past I have found to be a bit more interesting than the normal one because we get to witness famous people just beyond the comfort zone of the tightly controlled PR version of themselves which they normally present to the media. I enjoy to see, for example, what a comedian whose talent I admired was like in such a different situation to a comedy gig. However as the first of the housemates walked into the house the awful truth was revealed; the truth of where we are with this whole Reality TV phenomenon. The contestants were not ‘real’ celebrities of the old school who had earnt fame by virtue of their talent. They were reality TV stars - people who were famous simply for appearing on other reality programmes. By feeding on itself, the notion of Celebrity has been downgraded so much that it has no meaning anymore; this further diminished my interest in the programme and I reached for the off button.


This process of degeneration happens in most genres - in the sitcom world they even have a name for when the original spark of the programme has died and it becomes a parody of its former self. They call it ‘Jumping the Shark’ after a late episode of the American sitcom Happy Days. In this the writers had so badly run out of ideas that they left behind the gentle character comedy it was known for and resorted to an absurd moment of slapstick in which the lead character (The Fonze) was seen water skiing over a shark!


I was thinking that reality TV has reached this ‘Jumping the Shark’ stage when recently I chanced upon a reality TV show called Celebrity Rehab. (I’m sure American friends are familiar with this new incarnation of the form but it is still relatively unknown here in England). Back in America, where the phenomenon began, this is what Big Brother has evolved into. I could hardly believe that programme makers would actually put a camera on such a private and painful process arising from substance addiction, which is basically a life-threatening illness. The programme raises a whole host of questions: are these people’s addictions being exploited for ratings? Can you be exploited if you are a willing participant? And why are these ‘celebrities’ willing to expose their most private demons to the public? The only answer can be that the biggest addiction of all is to be famous. If the ‘drug’ in this scenario is the cameras then doesn’t this make the programme makers the pimps and the pushers? On top of this there is the question of how a doctor can be a part of such a programme; does this mean that he is perhaps as addicted to being filmed as much as the ‘patients’ he is treating? If so, doesn’t this compromise his ability to help the participants he is supposedly treating?


As we have learnt with all reality TV, we must always ask the question ‘How real is real?’ Are the tears being shed just ‘TV’ tears, the price paid for the fix of more airtime? Are the concerned looks on the faces of the doctors just the mask of a professional who has become an actor who is now playing the role of the TV doctor? The surprising thing is that despite the artifice of the whole situation it seems to me that ‘real’ life still manages to bleed though onto the screen in Celebrity Rehab. In amongst the set ups and staginess I find that there are some powerful and moving moments which actually take us beyond the masks of the ‘celebrities’ to the vulnerable ‘real’ human beings who lie beneath. I think this is because these people are dangerously ill; it's almost as if the seriousness of their conditions cuts through the Hollywood hype of the programme. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the plight of the participants and ultimately the compassion of the doctor very moving. If a programme can still move us then it is touching our shared humanity. Perhaps there is still life in reality TV after all.



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