That’s reality, baby!

Reality Television is something I have touched on before to a certain extent- arguably in a more negative light. Not as one may think though! I championed reality television, stating that constructing something such as Jersey Shore is no small feat- creating a reality drama about real people and their trivial interactions that has captured thousands and garner a huge amount of (not always positive) attention is something to cheer about. No, what made my blog negative was the assumption it made that reality television is considered low culture entertainment- my arguments were framed under the assumption that reality television needs defending. Let’s be honest, these days it kind of does. Reality television is sinking lower and lower terms of reputation in the Australian media- even internationally reality television is garnering a less than savoury reputation.

Why? For years reality television has jumped in and out of the public’s favour. When reality television originally came along it was as ethically contentious as it was compelling- when the initial hype burned out it faded into something similar to our current relationship with reality television. Then around ten years ago a spark was united again with the coming of Big Brother, Laurie Ouellette highlights that Big Brother’s original pioneering of “the use of wireless participation and 24/7 web streams” changed the media platform and trends for reality television altogether- stating since BB  “the Internet and mobile phones have become much more integral to the marketing, promotion, “mass customisation,” and delivery of all broadcast and cable television”. This change in landscape shot reality television back into the world of popularity and public love- reaching a climax around three years ago with the MasterChef  phenomenon (that has mostly died in the last few years mind you).

With these fluctuations in public attachment, one has to wonder why reality television is this way? What is about it that encapsulates people and repels people just as strongly? To understand all this, one needs to be able to define what reality television is. In the way we know high end drama attracts middle-class, relatively intelligent people because has complex narrative structures and high production values- we need to be able to understand what reality television is so we understand why people react a certain way to it.

To start with, let’s agree not to waste time on the obvious. Agreeing with Ouellette, “while there are certain characteristics, such as minimal writing and the non-actors) that cut across many reality programs, we are ultimately more concerned with the cultural and “branding” discourses that have coalesced to differentiate a particular stage in television culture.” One important and major aspect to reality television is that it is seen as a shamelessly commercial genre, that Ouellette states is “united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real.” This coupling of aesthetic neglect with commercial interests/popular societal focuses is interesting to me and in my opinion fundementally true for reality television. Compare these visuals for example:

The Walking Dead

To these:

I think it is clear which shows are focused on looking good- the high end dramas, the first three images. While dramas love the idea of “looking good” (critics constantly championing shows like Boardwalk Empire on being: visually stunning, visually engrossing, filmed beautifully, artful visuals) reality television shows such as the ones depicted above are focused far more on what is trending in the real world- to thus convey realism. The commercial sell of reality television isn’t looking good like a drama, because IT DOESN’T LOOK REAL. And what is reality television selling? “The industry’s reliance on “reality” as a promotional marketing tool is unprecedented. What separates the spate of contemporary reality-based television .. (is) the open and explicit sale of television programming as a representation of reality.” This important statement from Su Holmes‘ works summaries it. Reality television doesn’t look good because reality television is defined by selling and portraying reality. No one walks out their front door in the morning and thinks “what stunning visuals the world has to offer today”. Reality is ugly, reality is gritty. Hence why there are so many “hidden camera” (Big Brother, Cheaters, Candid Camera) reality television shows and so many “mini documentary” (Being Laura Bingle, Toddlers and Tiaras, My Embarrassing Addiction) reality shows out there. They look like real life and are thus reality. Although Modern Family portrays realistic and likely events, it is shot so well and looks so beautiful that people instantly know that it is fiction. To tie into this sell of reality, these shows always emerge in a way that is relevant to the time.

The X Factor

Let’s consider something like the X Factor. Why does it work so well, after so long? It’s because it is reflecting the current reality. It is connect to audience’s current loves, trends and fascinations. Stars such as One Direction, Justin Bieber or Reece Mastin are hugr at the moment and all of them have the from rags to riches appeal. It is arguably that the reality television show Britain’s Got Talent started the rags to riches fad with the explosion of Susan Boyle:

And hence X Factor lives on because it is reality shows like these that started these careers- X Factor is relevant to the world right now. In the opposite extreme, Channel 10’s recently failed Everybody Dance Now was doomed from the start- dance reality is a trend that has died with the Dancing with the Stars and Australia’s Got Talent Trend. Ten years ago Big Brother caught the world by storm as it arrived at the right time: When the world was on the cusp  of a media revolution, the digital revolution, and media ethics and privacy became an enormous focus for the world. Now that the digitial revolution has truly evolved and the world is now hyper-aware of social media, Big Brother has lost it’s relevance and cutting-edge feel as the world has become overly discerning and familar with the themes Big Brother tackles. Hence Big Brother is now trying other techniques to stay relevant such as producing advertisements involving songs that have exploded on the internet… I’ll leave you with the advertisement:

(It’s pretty cringe-worthy)

•What are some of the key defining
features of ‘reality tv’ as a television
Your entry must demonstrate some basic academic
research (links to at least a couple of books and/or book
chapters and/or journal articles).
Authors who have written on this topic and whom you
might consult include (but are not limited to):
Su Holmes; D. Jermyn; L. Ouellette and James Hay;
John Corner; Frances Bonner; Tania Lewis; Mark
Andrejevic; Annette Hill; Jane Roscoe.
You can discuss an example of a particular program to
help articulate these features but your analysis must still
be clearly supported by reference to the academic work.


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