TV UK, 23 September

Reality TV savaged by Grumpy Old Man.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Veteran film-maker Paul Watson launched an attack this week on the rubbish that passes for ‘reality TV’, complaining that programmes such as Big Brother, Wife Swap, and Five’s latest The Farm have nothing to do with reality.

Watson’s age and tone, and his choice of outlet for his critique (the Daily Mail) mean that he is likely to be dismissed by many as akin to one of BBC2’s Grumpy Old Men, but undoubtedly there is force to his argument. Tellingly, though, Watson accommodated somewhat to reality TV’s own professed values by focusing his fire on the mistreatment of subjects.

‘Seen as hapless saps, these subjects, or victims, are callously manipulated like caged laboratory rats, and then unceremoniously tossed back whence they came. They are treated like trash, their lives sacrificed on the great altar of entertainment.’ (1)

This is cutting, inasmuch as reality TV producers pride themselves on putting ‘ordinary people’ on television, and representing their concerns rather than those of ‘the elite’ of cultural figureheads like Watson. Reality TV is supposed to be on the side of its subjects. This may be more or less bunk, but it is certainly more important to producers than any notion of truth. And it was in fact reality TV’s disregard for the truth that formed the more substantial part of Watson’s critique.

In the service of ‘reality’, producers routinely take liberties with the facts, and often ask their subjects to sign waivers allowing them to do so. As Steve Hewlett argued in the Guardian last week, ‘the average participant in Queer Eye [the gay makeover show] is being asked to give the producers complete dramatic licence with his life. In other words the right to make it all up’ (2).

Paul Watson was the first filmmaker to use ‘fly-on-the-wall’ techniques back in the 1970s, and for that reason he has been described as the father of reality TV. But whatever the merits of his methods, Watson’s work was firmly rooted in documentary, and he sought in his programmes to represent the real lives of the people he filmed. This certainly cannot be said of most contemporary ‘reality TV’.

While elements of reality TV can be traced back into documentary, it has another at least as important history in light entertainment. The critic Christopher Dunkley, another grumpy but perceptive old man, has argued that the genre owes as much to programmes like It’s a Knockout!, the clownish gameshow, as to any programmes concerned with truth. Subsequently, the development of ‘innovative’ (ie wacky) ‘formats’ in factual programming has become an end in itself.

While Watson is quite right to attack lazy commissioning editors for lapping up reality show after crappy reality show, then, it is perhaps naive of him to suggest that programme makers such as Peter Bazalgette and Stephen Lambert, who are responsible for many of the shows he attacks, have merely ‘succumbed to greed’. I suspect that producers are genuinely proud of much of their output, judging it not by how true it is, but merely by how successful the format is.

Bazalgette and Lambert may have been brought up in a profession that at least paid lip service to the notion of truth, but they are now at the head of a new wave in television (one Watson identifies with former BBC director general John Birt). An entire generation of programme makers has now been brought up to take pride in formats that celebrate the banality of an imagined constituency of ‘ordinary people’. To be ‘professional’ in contemporary TV is to produce such programmes and produce them well.

For that reason, Watson’s belief that the tide is turning against reality TV may be premature. It isn’t enough to point out that The Farm tells us nothing about the real world. Sadly, the case has to be made that the real world really matters.

(1) ‘Don’t blame me for this junk’, Daily Mail, 22 September 2004

(2) When reality doesn’t exist, Media Guardian, 13 September 2004

(3) See ‘It’s not new and it’s not clever’ in my Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002

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Topics Culture


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