Sylvania Waters was the first reality show to ever be produced in Australia. Premiering in 1992 in conjunction with the BBC, the ABC traced 6 months in the life of Noeline Baker and Laurie Donaher of 42 Macintyre Crescent, Sydney.
Considering what we now know about reality TV – highlighting on traits as a way of creating characters that are easy to understand and pigeon hole, characters that perform for the camera, tireless arguments etc. – it’s a wonder Noeline and Laurie ever put their hand up for the gig.
Lo and behold in hindsight they regret this decision. In an article from The Times newspaper in London entitled ‘Australia’s televised truth is soapier than fiction’ that dates back to 1993, Noeline is quoted as publicly complaining that the show “‘defames’ Australia, when she had the idea it would ‘promote’ it” (Times, 2013). Bit of a tall ask considering it’s her life she is referring to as something that could be deemed a promotion of Australia but I’ll let that one slide given the 20 year hiatus.
The same article points out the audience reaction that one can only assume prompted the above statement from Noeline. To quote, ‘the audience saw it as an assault on Australian culture, and the hapless real-life Baker-Donahers were thrown on the defensive’. In another article from the same year and same newspaper, “Noeline hits back at Sylvania film makers; BBC’s Sylvania Waters”, a recollection of Noeline and Laurie flying to England to set the record straight suggests the pair felt ‘their lives were destroyed by a false portrait that depicted them as vulgar, racist, drunken materialists’, so much so that Noeline was ‘driven to the verge of suicide.’ (Fowler, 1993)
Now considering the aim of the Family and TV project, would it not be necessary to ask the following: if we are presented with content that doesn’t mirror our vision of ourselves, our family and our culture, is this content wrong? Does content need to be a proper representation of how we as a culture see ourselves in order for it to be succesful?
Well, if we take a look at representations of family and culture in other more contemporary examples of reality television it appears that this isn’t exactly the case. Take Jersey Shore for example.
So how effective is TV as a cultural influencer? And does a negative representation of our culture result in cringes and outcries from the public, or does it more reassure us that unlike those people up on the screen we aren’t that crazy?
After all, you can’t cater to everyone.
In another article from The Times from 1997 dealing with the same two subjects of Slyvania Waters, the author goes on to point out that ‘Not everyone is left with only bad memories.’ The example given that of Marc and Karen Adams-Jones in Desmond Wilcox’s 1986 documentary film ‘The Marriage’ (Midgley, 1997).
And as an A Current Affair report from July 23rd 2012 notes, this ‘warts and all look at an Australian family’ was watched by millions.
So where do we find ourselves today? What better place to look than The Voice, and Jersey Shore.
Truss, Lynn “Australia’s televised truth is soapier than fiction.” Times [London, England] 23 Apr. 1993: 3. Academic OneFile. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.
Fowler, Rebecca “Noeline hits back at Sylvania film makers; BBC’s Sylvania Waters.” Sunday Times [London, England] 29 Aug. 1993: 3.Academic OneFile. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.
Midgley, Carol “Regrets linger long after documentary makers have cried ‘Cut’.” The Times (London, England) March 14, 1997: 3. Academic OneFile. Gale. RMIT University Library. 17 Apr. 2013