Since the dawn of this new century, our idea of what constitutes a television show has never been the same. With the launch of the Australian version of Big Brother in 2000, television watching has become a ritual that involves real people in real situations, and we hold power to decide who stays and who goes. What is it about reality television that is so appealing to audiences? And if we look closely, how “real” are they?
The concept of the reality TV show has been around a lot longer than the millennial phenomenon would lead you to believe. Early relationship shows such as Perfect Match displayed apparent similarities to the genre, as did game shows (Family Feud, The Price is Right) and day-time talk shows (Oprah, Jerry Springer). The “physical challenge” aspect of shows like Survivor and Big Brother had been seen decades earlier in It’s a Knockout and the popular 90’s children’s game show Double Dare. The “last-man standing” concept had been well and truly explored by various Australian radio networks through promotions such as Live in it to Win it. The 1980’s Australian fly-on-the-wall drama Sylvania Waters is a very early example of the reality TV genre, it broke television boundaries at the time as it followed the ‘real daily life’ of an Australian family.
Producers now call it “factual programming”, but whatever name you use, it is clear that the elements of reality TV had already existed for decades before networks discovered the perfect formula for a successful reality program – voyeurism, competition and audience participation.
What is Reality TV?
This is a question that anyone who has turned a television on in the past five years can answer. On closer inspection, however, the tag of “reality TV” covers a broad range of programs that can be grouped into clear sub-categories.
“Reality TV is now generally defined as a television program that features members of the public in unusual situations, often competing for a prize, and often involving audience participation.” All of the most popular and long-running reality TV programs fit this description, the most obvious examples being Survivor and Big Brother.
Big Brother fits into the fly-on-the-wall category. This means that viewers watch a group of strangers placed in a house together then, based on their ‘performance’, vote out the housemates one-by-one. The fact that Big Brother is highly edited and that contestants are given challenges and other prompts to make them more entertaining leads many critics to consider it more drama than reality thus the term ‘docusoap’ has been used to describe this type of program.
Survivor also has a last-man-standing element but combines it with placing contestants in a ‘castaway’ environment where they have to work in teams to survive. Strategy then comes into play, as contestants vote each other out, leading to alliances and also betrayal within groups. It then becomes ‘every man for himself’ in the final stages of the show. Again the fact that contestants are placed in a very extreme situation leads critics to question how ‘real’ the show is.
X-Factor adheres to the long tradition of the talent quest, a tried and tested formula on Australian television that has consistently risen from the ashes in different guises over the decades, from New Faces in the 1960s to the phenomenon that was Young Talent Time.
The Biggest Loser is from the “makeover” school of reality TV; others in this category include Extreme Makeover, and the new UK program Make Me Beautiful, Please. The highly successful Biggest Loser takes the essence of these programs – taking someone that is physically imperfect and improving their looks – and adds a competition element, with competitors voting each other out rather than having the audience do it.
Reality TV also includes romance and relationships, such as Temptation Island, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and team-based shows that focus on teams working together to solve problems, such as The Amazing Race. With some reality TV programs, such as X-Factor, the motivation for going on the show is explicit. What aspiring singer wouldn’t want the opportunity to sing in front of hundreds of thousands of people and maybe even walk away with a record contract at the end? But other programs ask a great deal more of contestants. Big Brother asks contestants to give up all of their privacy and leave it to the viewers to decide if they are worthy enough to stay in the house in the hope of winning the final cash prize. The award is appealing but putting your life on hold for what could be several months so that strangers can critique your every move is something nightmares are made of for many people. But every year hundreds of thousands of Big Brother hopefuls turn up to auditions in the hope of being one of the gregarious few chosen for the show. What is it about reality TV programs that make people go to extremes in the dream of being part of the action?
It would have to be argued that what appeals to contestants that choose to go on reality TV programs is more than merely the prize. Australian Idol offers singers a chance to be heard by thousands, however briefly. The Biggest Loser provides overweight Australians access to personal trainers and dieticians, something that few people can afford. While there is prize money for the winner, all contestants can hope to achieve weight-loss goals. Big Brother offers outgoing people the opportunity for 15 minutes of fame. Contestants would like to walk away victorious, but many seem to be just as content to achieve notoriety for a few months.
Survivor offers something unique and appealing to contestants: a physical and mental challenge. Something essential and primeval within many of us wants to know that if placed in a Lost scenario, we would not only survive, we would flourish through our coping and teamwork abilities. Put more simply; it is an adventure; at least this was the motivating factor for Joel Betts, an Australian man who appeared in Survivor: Australian Outback. “I was a fan of the American Survivor,” says Betts, “…I watched them each week and pictured myself out there, taking on the challenges and testing myself mentally and physically. Being a TV star was not my motivation for going on Survivor.”
Other shows take what is usually a very private part of people lives, that of romance and courtship, and turn it into a competition in which those deemed ‘undesirable’ are unceremoniously sent packing. What makes highly attractive and competent men and women audition for shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette? The executive producer of The Bachelor, Mike Fleiss, says that interest in the show has always been robust: “…we have thousands of applicants, and what’s difficult is to find the right people to go on the show. We’ve been very fortunate with our casting thus far… So we have high standards with our cast but so far we’ve been successful.”
The use of the word ‘cast’ by Fleiss brings into question the idea of how real these programs are when those who appear on the show are carefully chosen out of a group of thousands for their ability to produce drama and entertainment. Conversely, those auditioning know that they are only going to be selected if they exhibit the right level of exuberance, quirkiness and humour. To what extent does this awareness of what is required on both sides of the development process compromise the ‘reality’ of the show?
Reality TV is not a dozen people randomly selected from off the street. Producers of shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race have a perfect idea of the sort of people that will make their show enjoyable, so before auditions even start the criteria is set. Those lucky few who make it through to the final stages are made to sign non-disclosure agreements, which is one of the main reasons why the audition process is still shrouded in a great deal of mystery.
“Once they make it to the round of finalists, they willingly sign hefty contracts absolving the production companies of liabilities and submit to background checks, physical tests, gruelling interviews, and psychological probing,” states an article in American online magazine, The Morning News. When the selection process is this scientific, how ‘real’ is the group of people that we end up seeing on our TV screens?
For the American version of Survivor, a team of psychologists were hired to not only assist with the selection process and ensure interesting contestants but also to make sure that ‘fragile’ people were kept out. Dr Richard Levak was hired to assess the cast of Survivor because: “the producers were concerned about the possibility one of their contestants might commit suicide.” This fear was brought on after the first contestant evicted from the original Swedish version of Survivor, Expedition Robinson, took his own life. It seemed that what producers had not been prepared for was that some contestants would have trouble dealing with life after the show.
Big Brother in Australia has a long tradition of putting extremely extroverted individuals together. However, they took this human cocktail even further, appearing to make a conscious decision to place single, flirtatious people in the house. As a result, there was controversy involving sexual harassment, racism and even speculation over whether two contestants had copulated in the spa.
Big Brother host, Gretel Kileen, concedes that the contestants are carefully chosen and that quiet, reserved contestants are certainly not what they are looking for: “We’ve never intentionally put a wallflower in there,’ Killeen says. ‘We can play games with them on audition day, they are psychologically tested, they can fill out forms, but how are they going to act [in the house]? We can never test that.”
Even those not used to critiquing the television shows they watch would be very aware of the fact that reality TV relies heavily on editing techniques. Producers and editors use a wide range of techniques to turn 24 hours of boring footage into an entertaining half-hour.
“Editing can influence our responses to characters and events, through juxtapositioning of images, for example, and establish pace and changes of pace, through the length of shots and speed cuts.” By taking several quotes from one contestant and editing them together, producers can create a compelling character, be it a saint, villain, clown or something else entirely. Contestants are often astounded at how they are portrayed in the final edit. A contestant of the American reality show, The Apprentice, claimed: “I can tell you that what I watched and what I went through are two different things.” Other contestants have been so disgruntled by how they were portrayed they have attempted to take legal action.
“An editor builds the narrative of a moving image through cutting together sections of footage.” This is an essential part of reality TV. From hours of footage of people going about their everyday lives, as is the case on Big Brother, a ‘narrative’ needs to emerge, and this will generally need to be constructed to a large extent. Therefore a moment of flirtation between two characters becomes the central theme of that night’s show. Or a disparaging comment that a contestant made about someone else in the house is repeated several times, increasing the impression of ‘tension’ in the house.
Necessarily producers and editors can make or break a contestant by merely choosing to give them very little screen time or by giving them too much. A Big Brother contestant that is barely seen in the daily footage is not going to last very long, and a contestant who is continually shown saying negative things is also going to be pretty unpopular.
“Survivor employs several conventions, such as voice-over narration, titles, and direct address, that are commonplace in television.” The use of voice-over narration in Survivor gives producers a straightforward way to shape a storyline. As teams struggle to start fires and build shelter, group dynamics are primarily created by the narrator. Frustrated words between contestants will become ‘a team-destroying rift’; a tired-looking contestant is ‘hanging on by a thread’, and anyone who is not deemed interesting enough is simply edited out. It has also been alleged that in the past Survivor ‘recreated’ scenes in which contestants competed for immunity because film crews were visible in the original footage.
The use of organised ‘challenges’ and activities in shows like Survivor and Big Brother adds to the question of whether or not they portray reality. Interaction, competition and emotion are constructed by forcing contestants to compete in physical and mental challenges in the quest for immunity from eviction. Big Brother, in particular, intervenes in the lives of the housemates to make the show more entertaining. Housemates in the past have been asked to attempt ‘gross-out’ challenges, and the last one standing has immunity from eviction. In this instance the hand of “Big Brother” not only creates ‘entertainment’ by asking housemates to eat sheep’s testicles, but it also orchestrates a scenario in which new aspects of each housemates personality will come to light. This adds to the dynamics within the house and also fuelling the viewers’ sense that they are getting to know these people. The more engaged viewers are in the lives of the contestants, the higher the ratings.
Reality TV is an integral part of popular culture. Therefore, viewers should not avoid watching it because they know that it is not ‘real’, they should watch it wholeheartedly with an eye for the editing, voice-overs and characterisation that make it so entertaining.
Ask yourself what has been left out of the nightly Big Brother highlights? Or what might have been going on earlier to make that Survivor contestant get so upset? But above all, watch it for the social phenomenon that it is. Enjoy every contrived scene and every ‘character’, never forget to ask yourself what these people are like when the cameras stop rolling.