Reality TV has no redeeming features…

When inventor Paul Nipkow completed his “electric telescope” in 1884, he could not have predicted the impact it would later make on the world. Nipkow’s device, which allowed the sending of images over wires, inspired others to build upon this exciting new technology (Wikipedia 2006).  In 1900, the term “television” was coined by Russian Constantin Perskyi. Thirty years later, the first television commercial was transmitted, and the British Broadcasting Commission began regular broadcasting (Bellis 2005). “Television” was now a recognized term. By 1948 over one million homes in the United States alone had television sets, allowing them to tune into shows such as Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, a show where ordinary people were caught on film during embarrassing staged pranks (Murray & Ouellette 2004, p.3). The post-World War II Americans of the 1950s were content with this type of good humoured show. Funt suggested that its success was due to its presentation of “people caught in the act of being themselves” (Balkin 2003). Even though participants might have been briefly embarrassed, their privacy and dignity were ultimately protected, plus no one was actually hurt (Balkin 2003). With the advent of network television, a new genre of programming had arrived: reality TV.

As society progressed, and television technology continued to develop, so did this fresh genre. The 1960s brought with it a rise in social revolution, human rights movements, civil rights movements, and anti-War movements (Wikipedia 2006). Although this decade affected all corners of the globe, in western societies particularly, more people started to protested, riot and reject their conformist lifestyle. By the time Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, society was more sexually open and violent in their actions. Television had no option but to follow suit.

By the 1970s viewers, who were now accustomed to watching confronting Vietnam War footage as they sat around the dinner table, were finally ready for watching programs that displayed even more reality and further invasiveness (Balkin 2003). Non-profit station PBS responded in 1973 by broadcasting a weekly unscripted and unrehearsed show called An American Family which followed the real life travails of the Loud family (IMDb 2006). Reality TV was getting cruder, but it was not yet purely a money-making venture.

Eighteen years later, MTV’s The Real World had drifted further away from its predecessors, focussing on entertaining a younger audience with a cast specifically chosen to ignite conflict (Murray & Ouellette 2004, p.3). During the early years of the 21st century, reality programs continued along this path. Viewers by the millions were tuning in to watch participants argue, fight, dine on rats and other grotesque creatures, lie to one another and reveal their most intimate personal details to a potentially worldwide audience. Reality television had transformed from a good humoured source of entertainment into a contest where participants competed against one another for love or money. Unlike those of the past, shows like Survivor, preyed on people who were willing to risk everything to win a sizeable cheque. Reality television had invaded the small screen. As president of CBS stated: “the world as we knew it is over” (Murray & Ouellette 2004, p.4).

These new breeds of reality television programs share a common characteristic in that they exploit vulnerable social groups. Shows like that of Idol, Pop Stars and X-factor franchises have proven time and time again that people will do just about anything to be on television and claim their five minutes of fame. These programs target young and naïve people who are tempted by the remote possibility that they might end up strutting down red carpets amongst their favourite celebrities. The reality is that only a few people out of the thousands of participants will actually get to a point in the competition where anyone will start taking them seriously. It is also important to understand that reality television is a dangerous mix of reality and fantasy. Unlike fictionalised drama, where only characters get hurt, in reality television programs, real inexperienced teenagers can be emotionally damaged when, for example, Ian Dickson tells them that their voice “should come with a government health warning” (IMDb 2006). The ironic thing is that some of the worst performers, such as William Hung, sometimes end up with the most success because they are exploited and marketed for comedy value.

Big Brother is another example of networks exploiting vulnerable social groups, but instead of just focussing on young and naïve participants, they take advantage of those that do not have permanent fulltime employment and therefore have the ability to take several months off at a time. By offering a substantial sum of money to the winner of the competition, television networks lour in individuals who are struggling to pay the bills all at the cost of their self-respect and privacy. For most housemates, Big Brother is just another “get rich quick” scheme.

Even shows such as Survivor take advantage of a specific type of individual, although not one that you would usually associate with being exploitable. Unlike those that feature in Big Brother or Idol, these candidates do not necessarily have to be youthful, but instead must have the drive to do whatever it takes to win the competition. Survivor targets those who are experienced, ruthless and competitive. Where Idol has students and musicians, Big Brother tradesman and fish & chip shop employees, Survivor has lawyers and ex-Navy seal operatives. This variety of show also has a genuine element of risk. Despite the fantasy situations, participants, who are real people, can get physically harmed as they perform various stunts. During production, the stakes are heightened even further when viewers grow bored of the show and the producers are forced to increase the danger in an attempt to increase viewers, and with them, advertising revenue.

Jerry Springer is another obvious example of producers taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of people, specifically, unstable working class types with serious personal and relationship issues that can’t afford to get assistance through counselling or other expensive means. Audience’s world-wide tune into this program, and laugh at these peoples expense; much like the freak shows of yesteryear. Funniest Home Videos is just as immoral as it catches parents shamelessly exploiting their injured children and costumed pets for the chance of winning a hefty cash price (Rowen 2000).

The harsh truth is that, like every business, reality television programs exist purely to make money. In the late 1980s television networks found themselves in financial troubles as they started failing to raise enough money to survive. This, and the other factors, such a labour instability, forced the television industry to re-evaluate their programming tactics (Murray & Ouellette 2004, p.7). It did not take long for networks to realise that reality television was the ideal solution. Because reality television shows are unscripted, networks would no longer have to be dependent on hiring unionised writers and actors (Murray & Ouellette 2004, p.7). Where it can take as much as four million dollars Australian to produce a sitcom or drama, an episode for a reality television program will generally cost around a third of that price (Balkin 2003). Because of this, many public television stations, particularly in Europe embraced reality programming. It had been transformed from a form of entertainment into a financial survival mechanism (Murray & Ouellette 2004, p.7).

One of the key differences between reality television of the past, and that of the likes of Big Brother and Idol is that by utilising new technology such as SMS and The Internet, viewers can interact with the show, voting people they like to “play on” and evict those they do not. At first this may seem like a logical step to expanding upon television as an entertainment and information medium, but once profits gained are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that it is just another method for the networks to make money. There are sponsorship deals for the naming rights to bigbrother web site domains. These websites are covered in advertising banners. In Australia, by placing the Big Brother house in the theme park Dreamworld, all parties benefit as each can promote the others respective businesses and products. It is also worth noting that Dreamworld is owned by the Macquarie Leisure Trust, which also owns and operates AMF bowling, a sponsor of the Australian show. These are all examples confirming that television stations have chosen profit over entertainment value. Instead of allocating funds to developing new dramas or sitcoms, they are exploiting specific demographics so they can output content at the minimum of costs.

It is not only new technology that has helped networks satisfy advertisers. Producers also have taken advantage of more traditional advertising means to increase their cash flow. Big Brother is again a most appropriate example. All the items inserted into the house have been placed there through sponsorship deals. In Australia, all of the food products within the house come from specific food companies that have commercial agreements with the show’s production company. Any food products that are not covered by a contract have their labels removed (Wikipedia 2006). The Australian Big Brother has affiliations and sponsorship agreements with paint suppliers, alcohol brewers, car manufactures, building supplies, home automation fitters, fitness organisations and even carpet companies. More obvious forms of traditional advertising can be found during eviction shows, where walls are covered in signs and banners much like that of football ovals.

When shows such as An American Family were being aired in the 1970s, reality television was just another harmless form of entertainment. But as society progressed, and “making a profit” became more important, programs like MTV’s Cops emerged to keep networks afloat. By the new millennium reality television no longer had any redeeming features; it was all about making a profit. Television networks started to exploit a wide variety of social groups to help achieve this aim. They started to use new technology to increase their cash flow. Product placement techniques started to become common place, keeping advertisers happy. Reality television demonstrates that civilisation has put ethics and morals aside, so that corporations can make money. It will be interesting to see what networks will do next when people become bored of the current reality television format, forcing producers to formulate new ways of keeping advertisers satisfied.


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