In recent years hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘reality TV’ programmes have graced our screens – everything from Benefits Street and Judge Judy, to Keeping up with Kardashians and Geordie Shore, The Hills, Made in Chelsea, Catfish, TOWIE and even Dogs on the Dole. The list is seemingly endless, and judging by the media’s response and their continuing production, they are a popular choice amongst viewers.
For many, ‘reality TV’ is a harmless watch – it requires little concentration and is packed with entertaining ‘real-life’ drama. Unlike soaps, reality TV also often affords the viewer the opportunity to follow its ‘stars’ off screen, across social media such as twitter, instagram and Facebook. But with each new programme, and each new year the invasive nature of these releases seems to reach new heights. Perhaps this is in part due to the competitive nature of broadcasting, or indeed the urge to test the boundaries of television. But it also suggests a change in social attitudes, of what is not only acceptable but appropriate to share with the world concerning the most intimate details of our lives. The question is, has reality TV gone too far?
To get to grips with this, it’s worth noting the history of reality TV, or rather when reality TV as we know it, really began to hit its stride. One programme that found itself particularly successful was Big Brother, aptly named after the police state of Orwell’s 1984. The concept, as I’m sure you are aware, was simple; a group of strangers would be placed in a house for a set period of time with no contact from the outside world, and every interaction filmed as part of a social experiment. Other early success stories also included Laguna Beach, which followed a number of high school students, and The Simple Life, which followed Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie as they undertook manual, low-paying jobs. This is also the point at which reality TV began to change – entertainment value and ratings seemed to outweigh social experiment, and so was born the era of ‘scripted reality’, paradoxical as that may seem.
Scripted reality itself concerns producers involving themselves in the lives of the ‘subjects’ they are following, coercing willing cast members to interact with one another as tensions are fraught, and deliberately engineering explosive scenes for the benefit of ratings and entertainment value. From a business perspective it makes sense – no one would watch if nothing happened.
But from a different stand point, it seems as though what started out as a genuine look at human nature and how we interact with other people, has now become a cheap shot at ‘stardom’ and B-list celebrity status. Either the ‘situations’ created by producers are crazier than ever, or the programme’s ‘stars’ play up, escalate and feed on ‘shocking’ behaviour – take for example Geordie Shore, later series of Big Brother and even I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
Undoubtedly, some people love reality TV and the drama that it contains, but for others reality TV has become like watching a car crash; you don’t really want to see what’s happened, but you can’t look away either. Perhaps the most recent example of one such show is Young, Free & Single: Live, in which participants, filmed of course, go on a date each week before watching the ‘highlights’ back live, and receive dating advice and feedback via social media – cue numerous awkward exchanges. This then brings us to the problem of what reality TV offers us that is of value. Shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea have little bearing on our own lives, and yet people take a keen interest in the affairs and gossip of the people involved, particularly as they air their dirty laundry.
Again, it seems harmless enough – those involved are willing participants, they are aware of the media’s watchful eye and they can enjoy the benefits of their position. But as headlines seek to become more attention grabbing than the last, reality TV has become even more exploitative than before. The process of editing, creating high drama, and manipulating the order in which ‘scenes’ are viewed and dissected, are all for ‘entertainment purposes’, but there seems no limit as to what can be justified under this umbrella term. How else could the bitching, fighting and general self-absorption shown by some reality stars be packaged?
So, have we gone too far?
Some would say so, and many would be inclined to agree. Yet in spite of this there is still the sense that reality TV has its place, that at the risk of drowning in the sheer volume of reality programmes out there, hidden gems are to be found – programmes like Educating Yorkshire and First Dates spring to mind.
Certainly though, love it or hate it, guilty pleasure or not, reality TV is going nowhere fast.