It’s not really something I want to write on, reality tv. But the reality is that it is the topic for this week. So I thought I might look into why my dislike of the format might exist, through an analysis of the key defining features of reality tv.
A few weeks ago I posted a critique of Big Brother (if you haven’t already, have a read) making reference to an article by Daniel Burt in The Age. The article itself brings up some pretty important ideas around reality TV and Big Brother especially. To summarise, the key aspects of the format are the sense that reality TV can afford some kind of instant fame, that we are becoming an increasingly narcissistic population and that reality TV has a tendency to fall into ‘dramatic mundanity’ (Burt, 2012) if it is not done well.
Obviously, how we define ‘well’ is entirely subjective. However, I believe there are some features which make reality TV more enjoyable, and thus well executed.
These featurs are perfectly captured first by a term used by John Corner, ‘versions of selfhood’, and secondly, ‘lives in time’, where we find ourselves becoming immersed in the story world – and the pleasure that is taken out of being involved in something for such a long time. Obviously, this immediately draws comparisons to the Jason Mittell reading of audience attraction to soap opera, whereby this feeling of involvement and complete understanding of the character’s world becomes reassuring.
So is reality TV just a soap opera played out using ‘real’ people? Well, in some cases this is true. Think The Hills, Big Brother, Keeping Up With The Kardashians… high brow stuff. Unfortunately, it also seems that these are often the most succesful.
However, the amount of attention and publicity these shows have attributed to them doesn’t entirely overshadow the other forms of reality TV that flourish under this notion of ‘lives in time’.
I would argue that the success of shows such as Ellen, Dr. Phil and Can of Worms can be attributed to their use of likeable character types (loveable lesbian, moustached psychologist, average mum) as hosts. Actually, when defined so simply they don’t seem so likeable… But trust me, they are.
In this situation, we are the ones making the observation of character types. However, these shows don’t only offer representations of ‘real’ life through the character types of their hosts. The latter two shows especially offer a critical look at ‘versions of selfhood’, hence showing a diegetic observation and critique of character types. Can of Worms asks questions of its guests and the pleasure is in seeing how each guest, considering their background, responds. On the other hand, Dr. Phil is nothing if not a character study of all those character’s who have reached breaking point, unable to maintain their facade, becoming a crumbled ruin of bricks in the process.
Perhaps I was a little naive to suggest I ‘dislike reality TV’. Sure, I hate watching narcissistic bimbos and bogans trot around on screen under the false pretense that they are a star. But the voyeurism that is innate in this viewing is undeniably enjoyable.
In becoming the voyeur, we are using reality TV as a vehicle to understand humanity. As an Australian, I like watching Australian reality TV. I want to hear what Australian’s have to say because chances are I’ve got an opinion on it to. I can ‘compile evidence and weigh it in’ in a similar way to the way in which Paul Watson would go about making a documentary.
I feel the main point I am contending here is that reality TV offers the ability to criticise and learn more than any other format. Because it is framed, wrongly or rightly, as ‘real’ we seem to exhibit a better and more ‘real’ engagement with the subject matter. That isn’t to say engagement with HBO shows or other fictional creations is less important or tangible. Rather it is to say that this staging, as inevitably it is, removes a barrier to communication that fiction erects simply for the fact that we see it as a closer representation of the real.
Of course, there are exceptions. But I hope that this idea at least goes someway to sparking discussion about what it is that makes certain reality shows so enjoyable, and whether reality TV as a whole can be categorised by a set of distinct features.
‘Get real’ people.
Thanks, Dr. Phil.