Big Brother may be on its last legs but that doesn’t mean reality television is in trouble. The genre is still producing real excellenceby Peter Bazalgette / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
“Is reality television on its last legs?” is a pretty dumb question. But if I had £1 for each time I’m asked it I could make serious inroads into Britain’s swollen government debt. And a good deal of the money would have accrued in the past month, since Channel 4 announced they could do without Big Brother. In fact, reality television has never been stronger—dominating the schedules with narratives at about a tenth the cost of television drama. Telly tsars are no more going to give up on reality television then they are on news, sport or comedy. It’s become one of the ways that television is made.
Reality television is an unscripted show in which members of the public are placed in a predicament and followed by cameras to see how they will react. The phrase arose in the US in the 1990s when media folk were stumped as to how to refer to the hybrid formats pouring out of Europe—Big Brother, Survivor, Wife Swap, Faking It, Supernanny and so on. Reality programmes are essentially formatted documentaries. Commissioners used to send out directors to make a documentary about, say, moving house. The problem was that they had no idea what the production team would come back with. Worse, it was a one-off and they then had to come up with a new idea, then another, and so on. But format the idea and call it Location, Location, Location and you know that each programme will generate you a narrative with a resolution. You can then go on making the same show until the great British public tire of it (ten years in the case of Big Brother, 30 and counting in the case of the Antiques Roadshow).
The most common complaint about reality television is that it is anything but: false, contrived, unreal. This is true up to a point. Reality shows start from a false premise. None of the participants would be there had a producer not invented the situation and persuaded them into it. But what flows from this is often completely “real” as people forget the cameras and react honestly to each other and events as they unfold. This contrasts amusingly with traditional documentary makers who had always purported to be purveyors of the truth. But, while they started with a real situation, their covert manipulations as they filmed and edited meant the end result…