Are you for real?

What the hell is Reality TV? A slice-of-life-documentary-soap-gameshow self-reflexive form of escapism that is loved and hated in equal parts, yet continues to thrive and flourish because of audience contempt? Well, yes.

In her review of several key TV studies theorists, Helen Piper identifies what we call ‘Reality TV’ as an ever-expanding range of programming that emerged, in its current state, around the turn of the century. She cites Big Brother as a catalyst for this change, and highlights the necessity for reality tv programming to exist within  an ecosystem of histrionic commentaries – reliant on magazines, websites and tabloids to validate / exacerbate the slice of life being shown.

Speaking of histrionic commentaries, check out Reality TVGIFs. Incredible.

In her overview of reality television, Kimberly Little also recognises an evolution of the genre, crediting the history of television programming as a whole to endowing reality tv with such a variety of qualities from the gamut of genres. As such, Little struggles to define reality television, but summarises it through the possession of four characteristics:

  1. The attempted use of passive camera surveillance.
  2. Illusion of reality.
  3. Focus on ordinary people.
  4. A certain extent of voyeurism.

Elizabeth Jensen, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, also struggles to define such a versatile genre, often referring to “Reality TV” as “unscripted television” throughout her article. She fuels her fascination for the genre – ‘a juicy mix of fact and fiction’ – by drawing upon a wide spectrum of sources, appropriating theorists’ questions to accentuate the boundlessness of the genre. What do we mean by a culture as ‘real’? How can something that claims to be real present itself as a game? And what of the school of thought that says reality tv shows are merely ‘human experiments that social scientists would perform if their code of ethics allowed them…’?

James Poniewozik from Time Magazine used network executive’s description of sitcoms and dramas as “comfort television” – familiar and boring- to then position reality television as “discomfort television” – rattling viewers through provocation and offence, and dragging them from the habitual television viewing rut they had fallen into. He recognises the humiliating aspects reality TV that often drive the genre, but tells of how these are balanced by moments of triumph. Rather than deny the presence of bad behaviour such as sexism and misanthropy within reality TV shows, Poniewozik illustrates the hypocrisy of a critical audience who views the same behaviour as ‘nuanced storytelling’ in a show such as The Sopranos’.

(And of course, the cyclical nature of television has been at play throughout. Now we see fictional shows created with reality television traits – confessional style interviews in The Office, handheld cameras in Kath & Kim.)

So the question still remains. What the hell is Reality TV?

REFERENCES

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Not-so-remote control

TELEVISION TODAY

The study of what ‘television is’ today confounds many, even scholars, as the notion of broadcasting to a mass audience is lost amongst the convergence of media platforms and the fragmentation of a national audience into smaller groups or communities.

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner’s essay What is Television? Comparing Media Systems in the Post-Broadcast Era (2008) explores the contemporary conditions that have resulted in the emergence of a new operating system for television. Where once television could be talked about as though it were a singular entity and a stand-alone medium, the technologies of today demand more cross-media interactivity. And increased interaction means a higher level of control by the viewer in terms of consumption of television content and structure.

POST-BROADCAST NEWS

So what does this mean for shows that purport to tell the truth, such as the evening news and current affairs programs? Tay and Turner suggest that television programming can no longer ‘circulate information and educate the populace; provide the pre-eminent venue for the public performance of party politics; and routinely broadcast ritual events designed to imbue the state with a ‘national’ character’ (pp.72-73). The rise of new media has seen the decline of the ‘national’ character. ‘Citizens’ are now recognised as ‘consumers’.

As seen in the Week 2 lecture, news is still a pre-eminent genre within television, holding the largest free-to-air viewer share (22% in 2010). Yet exposure to news stories via many new digital platforms, and indeed the availability of viewer-generated content, sheds light upon the many conventions employed within the network news programs in their promise to deliver the truth to the nation.

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Rather than broadcasting to a mass audience, television these days must be part of a two-way communication model. The audience member should be presented with the option to be part of the conversation, dialogue or debate. And what is being said must be credible, as the option to interrupt television viewing to check facts online now posits the medium in less of a dictator role, no longer telling the nation what stories are newsworthy or how these stories must be digested.

Indeed, the structure of broadcast news programs is often the subject of comedic mockery in post-broadcast news story ‘wind-ups’, such as ABC’s Mad As Hell – a show that presents the week’s news stories with commentary and intelligent human insights.

Shaun Micallef’s MAD AS HELL is a half-hour weekly round-up, branding, inoculation and crutching of all the important news stories of the week. Along with a like-minded Think Tank of reporters and pundits, Shaun Micallef’s MAD AS HELL offers not only reportage and analysis of the week’s events, but discussion, argument and dissection of what’s making the world turn every which way.

(www.abc.net.au)

VARIETY SHOWS – THEN & NOW

Another genre of television program that has had to adapt to the post-broadcast era is the variety show. Throughout history the variety show provided entertainment to be enjoyed by the whole family, or, as suggested by Henry Jenkins in Variety (2010), entire communities.

Not only did variety shows contribute significantly to the history of television, but they had a say in what constituted as ‘mainstream culture’. Says Jenkins, ‘well selected clips brought back a wealth of memories, including helping me to discover the roots of long-standing family expressions in the catch phrases of half remembered variety show sketches.’

The introduction of the remote control lessened the popularity of the variety show, as the audience member was immediately able to change channels if what was screening did not satisfy their immediate tastes. Yet Jenkins argues that vestiges of the variety show still exist in the form of contemporary amateur talent contests such as The X-Factor and Australian Idol. Reality programming the twenty-first century, though, is a different kettle of fish. It is multi-platform and multi-media – ‘with websites, chat-rooms, live video-streaming and key narrative moments…turned into public events by being performed before a live paying audience’ (Tay & Turner, 2008).

For me personally, the advent of multi-platform and multi-media viewing has meant that I struggle to sit through an entire movie these days. Thank goodness I don’t like Lord of the Rings – what chance would I stand?

Jenkins, H (2008) Variety’, 10 Jan, Pioneers of Television, viewed 1 August 2012, <http://www.pbs.org/remotelyconnected/2008/01/pioneers_of_television_variety.html#more>.

Morris, B (2012) Lecture notes Wk 2: Television in a Post-Broadcast Era, course readings from COMM1073, RMIT University, Melbourne, viewed 29 Jul 2012, <http://comm1073.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/wk-2_tv-post-broadcast.pdf>.

Tay, J & Turner, G (2008) ‘What Is Television? Comparing Media Systems in the Post-Broadcast Era’, Media International Australia, No.126, February, pp.71-81.