Reality TV: Telemarketing and tittilation

“Do not adjust your lives — there is a fault in our transmission.”

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The housemates of Big Brother.

There’s no doubt who won Big Brother. It was the Ten Network! According to Melbourne’s Age newspaper of 21 July, the program was responsible for a “modest improvement” in the broadcaster’s notoriously weak advertising sales. As anyone who saw a single episode is aware, the Big Brother house had wall to wall advertising. Not surprisingly, this was deliberate. The same article quotes Ten CEO John McAlpine: “cross platform [advertising] strategies are clearly the trend internationally, and our initial presentations to advertisers on this approach have been very encouraging.” Move over infotainment, now comes the era of “adfotainment”!

Big Brother shows a product in the house, just after an ad for the same product has aired. Pizza Hut, Heineken, Stella Artois and Sony have been featured on the show. It is is also mired in cross-promotion. Fabu and Dangerfield, Lynx deodorant, Triple M, News Limited, Dreamworld and Primus Communications are some of the companies involved. The TV moguls are making buckets of money!

Fishbowl Vision. Reality TV is flawed. If you are like me, then you can’t watch shows like Big Brother and Survivor for more than a few minutes. However, there is also something about it that grabs the imagination. Could its appeal lie in sheer voyeurism?

Big Brother involves a group of people who have been deliberately selected for their perky personalities and good looks, and who are conscious of constant surveillance. The cameras at the house kept watch 24 hours a day, and so could you, if you logged onto and coughed up $25 bucks. The TV show itself was not continuous. The show is heavily edited, with the script being supplied by the editing of the tapes. To boost ratings of the adults only version of the show, footage of embarrassing and unnecessary incidents such as Gordon masturbating or Johnny calling out another man’s name in his sleep were edited in.

In France, some civil libertarians have been so outraged by such demeaning invasions of privacy, even during sleep, that they have formed a group called, Smile, You are being Filmed. They have protested outside the prison-like walls of their local version of Big Brother, called Loft Story. They are so appalled by the inhumane treatment of contestants that they tried to scale the walls to set them free! This group has even won two hours a day when the cameras must be switched off as a humane gesture. The invasiveness of Big Brother may have a sick appeal but there is something unpleasant, not to say boring, in the exploitation of people when they are tired and vulnerable.

So what is the attraction? Whatever you might say about Reality TV, it is fresh and can be surprising. In fact, you could almost say it is a whole new format up there with sitcoms, documentaries, news and drama. But it is a format born of entertainment overload, rather than a tantalising new leap of human imagination. And it certainly takes no imagination to produce. Ever since Sylvania Waters, which featured a house in the suburbs, wired up in the manner of Big Brother, we have been treated to a rash of TV shows that have no plot and no overt conceptual content. At least Sylvania Waters centered on real people, in their real surroundings. It did say something disturbing about the shallowness and alienation of the suburban landscape.

Competition Con. But the format has now become more about competition — the tired old game-show format. In the process it has become cheaper and nastier, with no actors, and no scriptwriters, and a group of people desperate for media exposure, controlled wholly by the sponsors.

The show that first added the element of competition to Reality TV was Survivor. Contestants are placed on an island — or some other isolated setting — and, in a pseudo-tribal ritual, are encouraged to vote each other out.

We are supposed to get a vicarious thrill from watching people being nasty and betraying each other. It is the opposite of the role models we are used to: the heroine who fights for everything that is decent and who gains no unfair advantage. (Come back Xena, we miss you!) Sporting heroes, too, are supposed to represent ideals of fair play and team spirit. With the Reality TV format, however, you always have the feeling that the biggest bastard will win, although that didn’t happen in the Australian version of Big Brother.

Survivor is hardly reality, in fact it reflects a Eurocentric, racist view of Indigenous peoples. The Polynesian islands are not populated by people who voted each other off their islands at fortnightly intervals. And they did not win a million dollars when they were the last ones standing! Usually, they died.

Within traditional society, people shared skills and information that was essential for their survival. By cooperative action they increased their overall wealth. A single person living alone on an island would have a frantic, subsistence existence. When they got sick they would lie in the bushes, cold and miserable. On the other hand, even a small group of people could have a comparatively comfortable life.

There has recently been a spate of sociological and biological investigations into the social aspect of human interaction. Even arch Darwinian, Richard Dawkins, has shown a passionate interest in the advantages humans receive from cooperative interaction. (He wrote an enthusiastic forward for Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation.) The interaction of humans is not the simplistic one of kill or be killed.

Why would language evolve if people did not sometimes tell the truth and convey useful information? Could anyone in an industrialised nation create for themselves, alone on an island, even one hundredth the wealth that they receive from scientific means of production? The message of Reality TV however, and shows like Survivor, is that we are continually all at each others’ throats.

But the humanity and solidarity of the contestants is often too strong, despite the artificial competition, which reveals much more about humanity than some advertising executive’s “great idea for a TV show”. Contestants are often too decent and must be a disappointment to the show’s producers. On Big Brother, when Sara-Marie cries because Johnny has been submitted to the indignity of being voted out, they are real tears. When the worst that one contestant can say about another is that they are “too diplomatic,” the sponsors must be feeling cheated. When cooperation and compassion keeps breaking out between contestants, and when the people voted off are often the most overtly self-interested ones, the presenters must be worried that there is too much cooperation for the show to remain interesting. No wonder Big Brother needed to seed fresh frustrations by bringing in new characters.

Even so, the portrayal of raw, vicious competition goes one step beyond the general media portrayal of the working class as stupid and inhumane. It adds to the portrayal of the poor as people to be feared. What is most disturbing to me about Reality TV is that it is usually fundamentally dehumanising, lacking even the pretence of a more social aspect to human nature.

Can we expect more shows like Big Brother? Will the format of Reality TV survive? Is it too fluffy? Has it been milked to death? Or is it so cheap and lucrative that it will be a permanent part of the TV diet? Yep, just as long as there’s an advertising dollar to be milked from the hapless contestants.

Days of our lives. On the other hand, perhaps it could become something genuinely interesting. Could we make a show like Big Brother that actually said something original, or that offered insights into real reality, or at least that sustained our interest beyond a self-feeding sense of irony?

I actually like the idea of reality TV. Real Reality TV, that is. Let’s sit in a queue at a public hospital while a sick person waits for treatment. Let’s follow the life of a dispossessed young person as they try to get a flat, when the government will give them no money and their family is dysfunctional. Let’s sympathise with the injured worker who lives under the cloud of being branded a “bludger” and who receives a pittance in compensation. Let’s look at how much wealth working class people create and scientifically follow where that money ends up.

On the other hand, we could bring together the delegates to the WTO and put them under close surveillance for six months. Wouldn’t you love to know what they really got up to? The show could be edited by someone you can trust to bring you the good bits, the Freedom Socialist Party for example. Once every two weeks we could vote out the nastiest capitalist! Finally, when there is only one left we could say, “Capitalism, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!”

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