Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The illusion of reality

Far back in the mists of ancient time there was a television programme called The Young Ones. Always brash and often hilarious, the programme portrayed the surreal misadventures of an unlikely group of students who shared a house. Frequent targets for the parody of student life included the appalling landlord and a complete inability to keep the kitchen and bathroom clean. Naturally, the show was immensely popular with students. No-one in my hall of residence ever did any work between 9pm and 9.30 on Thursday when The Young Ones was on.

Then in 1993, Channel 4 decided to prove that real students were exactly the same as The Young Ones. The basic idea of The Living Soap was that six real-life students in Manchester would all share a house. Cameras would record their behaviour over a year and broadcast a weekly summary. For the students, and thousands applied, the promise was living rent-free for a year plus the chance of becoming a TV personality.

In the real world, a group of friends on the same course, or with similar interests or political ideologies might get together to rent a house. But The Living Soap was not designed to be real. The programme makers picked six individuals who would never have chosen to live together. If I remember rightly, there was a hairy heavy-metal fan who might have been studying to be an engineer, a single mother who may or may not have been a lesbian, a clay-shooting arch-Conservative, a soccer obsessive, a clubber, and an art student. Naturally, with such a diverse range of opinions, arguments were frequent and vitriolic. Just the sort of thing the programme makers wanted, and bearing almost no resemblance to actual student life. Selective editing had even the programme's participants complaining about being misrepresented. The only thing that these half-dozen people had in common was that none of them ever seemed to do any studying. I recall the televised interview of Matt the engineer with his tutor. He was being reminded that as he'd done no work at all that term it was likely that he'd be thrown out of university.

How realistic is Reality Television? Not very! We as viewers are supposed to believe that, because the participants are not acting to a script, everything they do or say is in some way real. Being trapped in the Big Brother house with the knowledge that cameras and microphones capture your every waking action isn't going to affect your behaviour? Is it reasonable to throw together individuals from wildly differing backgrounds and expect that differences of opinion aren't going to result in arguments? Of course not, and this is precisely what the programme makers are banking on. As for no script, I reckon even that's a fallacy. There must be some kind of plan to turn domestic dystopia into entertainment.

And then someone makes an allegedly racist remark. Oh, horror, horror! Questions in the House of Commons! Full-page articles in the daily press! I may have missed something, but I thought that reality television purported to show reality. And in my real world, people do actually make racist remarks. And yes, these might well be offensive. Unless the offensive language is directed at a white, male, able-bodied heterosexual, in which case it's considered perfectly acceptable, of course. Apparently, the participants in a reality show have to behave realistically, yet at the same time remember that they're on television and constantly modify their behaviour to suit. So-called reality television shows no such thing. QED.

Big Brother is a massive international success. All the recent publicity can surely have done nothing but good in the quest to boost ratings. It's the sort of advertising that no amount of money could buy.

Personally, I can't be bothered with it. When I want to watch reality television, I'll tune into the news. And even then I'll take what I see and hear with a pillar of salt.


Anonymous said...

The only part I disagree with is your conclusion that the publicity has been good for the BB show and its maker, Endemol (who have made similar type shows here in Spain, qv The Match ep.3 and The Garage).

Not one of our locals now talks about any of the reality TV on offer in Spain.

I sense that the reality TV genre as a whole has run its course, having been flogged to death in every conceivable format and language.

Good riddance! My only fear is what will replace it - probably the next lowest common denominator.

Not that it has or will change my viewing habits; our TV is used either for watching DVDs or as a computer / games console monitor. The only broadcast programmes we ever watch are news and documentaries.

J. Edward Tremlett said...

BB needs more shower scenes and decapitations to compete with such high-quality programing as 'Help! I've Been Kidnapped by Aliens!" and "Desperate Republican Reservation."

I loved the Young Ones. They had it on MTV when I was in high school.


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