The unreal world of Reality TV
At the end of this article there are some questions which can be used for a discussion event about Reality TV for your home group, youth group, Christian Union or adult Sunday School class.
Ten years ago, if you’d suggested to a television executive that people would be happy to watch black and white pictures of other people sleeping in real-time, she would have laughed at you - and sent for the men in white coats. But now it’s commonplace.
The number of Reality TV shows continues to grow: Big Brother; Celebrity Big Brother; I’m a celebrity – get me out of here; Survivor; Temptation Island; The Bachelor; Joe Millionaire… and on and on. As Mike Frost says:
‘Big Brother is about as uninteresting as reality TV gets, and yet, particularly in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia, it has rated consistently well, especially among younger audiences.’
So why does Reality TV work? What makes it so popular? And from the point of view of a follower of Jesus Christ, is it just harmless fun, or is it dangerous and destructive? In this article, I argue that it is harmful because of its unreality, its over-simplifications, and its moral emptiness.
We can see the unreal world of Reality TV in its false sense of community, false sense of involvement, and false sense of truth.
A false sense of community
Frost argues that one reason Reality TV is so popular is that it
‘… offers a fragmented and disconnected Western audience the opportunity to vicariously enter into a pseudo-community via the television set or their radio.’
We 'know' more about what's happening in the on-screen lives of the contestants than we do about the real-world people next door to us. We talk in first-name terms about them, as if we actually knew them. So Reality TV works by creating a sense of community. But it’s a false sense of community. It's false in two ways:
First, the characters we see on the TV show aren't real. They're artificially constructed. We see only what the camera operators, editors and producers choose to let us see. If we think they're interested in portraying reality, we are being incredibly naïve. The characters we see are just as fictional as the characters in a soap opera. We don’t know anything about the real lives of the actors behind them. (I'm using the word ‘actors’ intentionally, for that is what they are.)
A one way 'relationship'
And second … a relationship? How much do the characters in these shows know or care about us and our lives? The sense of relationship that is generated is completely one-way - a hundred percent spurious, and a hundred percent toxic.
A false sense of involvement
Reality TV shows are even more popular when we think we have the opportunity to decide the fate of the people involved. We get to vote on whether they stay or go – like Romans in the Colosseum voting on whether defeated gladiators should live or die.
Except… except that a string of recent scandals has shown that television voting is often a deceptive farce. When even the highly reliable BBC show ‘Blue Peter’ can rig the voting, who can you trust?
Media executives cynically manipulate our sense of being involved in the lives of the actors on Reality TV shows. (If you doubt the level of cynicism involved, I strongly urge you to read ‘Remotely Controlled,’ by Aric Sigman.)
A false sense of truth
Stories about what is happening on Big Brother and other reality shows become news items, just like stories about wars and earthquakes in the real world. Who is to distinguish truth from drama?
(From this point of view, the story about the ‘racist abuse’ of Shilpa Shetty by Jade Goody on the 2007 series of Big Brother was manna from heaven to the producers. The series was in danger of suffering the worst of all possible Reality TV fates - people were losing interest. A bit of conflict made it newsworthy again, and gave the ratings a boost.)
But there is no reality behind the stories. They are stories about stories. It is as if this evening’s Six O’Clock news carried a report about the latest doings of Aragorn and Gandalf (except that these would be more interesting).
It is a counterfeit reality, an artificial world, with artificial stories. As Jean Baudrillard says:
‘It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.’
In 'Reality TV', reality itself dissolves in a web of lies and videotape. (OK, I know it probably isn’t tape any more.)
One of the clearest examples of this is the story of Chantelle Houghton, the non-celebrity on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ series 8, who, in 2006, won the series and went on to become a genuine celebrity (‘Living the Dream’) and a millionaire, by playing the part of a non-celebrity pretending to be a celebrity. Like the snake eating its own tail, Reality TV feeds on itself.
Sound bites and simple people
Another reason why Reality TV is harmful is the way the complicated behaviour of people is simplified for our entertainment. Mike Frost says it well:
‘Reality TV makes the world a very simple place. Even a cursory viewing of Survivor, for example, reveals that the complexities and messiness of life… are papered over by clever editing and high production values. We cannot bear complexity and intricacy, even though they are a normal feature of real life. In the editing room, relationships on Survivor or Temptation Island are reduced to simple stereotypes. There are good guys and bad guys. Jealousy, affection, anger, and humour are reduced to typical responses, sound bites and emblematic images, never fully conveying the multifaceted nature of contestants or the complexity of the situations in which they find themselves. The reason: the messiness of life wouldn’t make good television.’
We’ve seen people on Big Brother falling in lust, and sometimes having sex under the duvets. If you put people of the opposite sex together in one room, and keep them there day after day, it's bound to happen.
Some of the other shows are far more intentional about encouraging people to be immoral and unfaithful. Here's how Mike Frost describes ‘Temptation Island’:
‘In this version of the show, happy couples are separated and placed on different islands with beautiful members of the opposite sex, who try to lure them to break up with their partners. Now, television wasn’t just fooling with contestants’ minds, it was interfering with their relationships. It couldn’t be more crass, but it was Fox’s highest-rated series in 2001 and now has over eleven foreign editions.’
Or how about ‘The Bachelor’? In this show
‘Twenty-five beautiful women get to date one man, and at the end of the series he chooses the winner and marries her. While totally demeaning the concept of marriage, it too was a hit.’
So why does this matter? Am I just being a killjoy, wanting to spoil other people’s fun? Surely if they want to go through this kind of thing, it’s just their individual choice?
Well no. And no. Because their choice doesn't just affect them. It affects all of us.
Marriage matters. It matters to the wellbeing of children, of individuals, and of society as a whole. The best place for children to be brought up is in a stable long term relationship with their birth parents. This isn’t ideology – there’s a huge and growing body of sociological research about it. And the cost to society of marriage breakdown is huge. To put it bluntly, every marriage that breaks down in this country makes you as an individual worse off financially. Anything that makes marriage a cheap gimmick is poisonous.
So Reality TV isn’t just harmless fun. It’s toxic. If it was a chemical, we’d campaign against people polluting our environment with it. To quote Mike Frost again:
‘Ever since television executives realised that Western audiences can’t get enough spurious, fraudulent nonsense on television, they have produced virtually every imaginable rendering of the reality genre, developing some of the most crass and simplistic nonsense ever to air on television. And international audiences have gobbled it up.’
Questions for discussion and reflection
- How can the Church provide an alternative to the false community of Reality TV?
- What can the Church do to encourage authentic relationships?
- How can the Church avoid the dangers of sound-bites and over-simplification, for example in sermons, Sunday-school classes, and home groups?
- To criticise the 'moral emptiness' of Reality TV sounds like old fashioned moralising. How can the Church show that relationships based on lasting commitment are more fun, and more secure, than the poisonous relationships on Reality TV shows?
Reality TV world - current TV shows.
Will what we love ruin us? An article about the first ever series of Big Brother, by Jo McKenzie.