On the surface, reality TV seems superficial in content and narrative compared to the ‘quality TV’ programs briefly examined in recent posts. This is to say, according to lecturer Brian Morris: reality TV is traditionally connoted as being “low brow” or “low quality”. Yet the academic discourse surrounding reality TV is just as dense as that of its ‘quality’ counterparts, and remarks on reality TV’s borrowing from several film or TV genres or modes (some of which would, standing alone, be considered ‘quality’).
Reality TV as transnational.
One aspect quite unique to reality TV is its capacity to be re-packaged in overseas models. Programs such as Idol have become templates recycled worldwide. These reality TV formats are among the most notable series’ to feature transnationally and, given their US origins, make a case for reality TV as an act of westernisation. However, Albert Moran notes that, while the US and UK nations are among a select few who act as “traditional sources” of transnational reality TV models (p. 298), there are other diverse countries that contribute their reality TV templates to the global exchange of this particular small screen format. This act of positively-perceived globalisation comes as a result of the “linguistically neutral” flavour of reality TV (Moran, 298). In other words, language barriers are irrelevant to a reality show’s capacity to make the transnational move – the content featured in the program is inherently tied to national cultures worldwide.
Reality TV as drama.
Television shows must always uphold a duty to be entertaining. Reality TV (or any format that claims to present some sort of reality) is in danger of crossing a boundary into the mundane, such as in archiving day-to-day events (Big Brother) or presenting the same weekly locale and theme (One Born Every Minute). Editing and the potential of light scripting are techniques utilised to imbue a reality TV program with a ‘three-act-structure’.
In the opening of the One Born Every Minute episode screened in the lecture, we are shown two pregnant women and their families entering the hosptial. We come to learn about these women’s personalities, their pasts and experience a range of emotions associated with getting to know these women. The second act presents a conflict: one woman refuses medical advice that will facilitate the birth of her baby while another, who is doing everything she can to help her own labour be speedier, has resigned herself to being confined to the hospital for days on end. I have a sneaking suspicion that the ladies weren’t in the hospital at the same time when filmed. The juxtaposition of narratives (mother desperately trying everything to have baby against mother’s stubbornness preventing birth) seems too coincidental. We can assume that the sequences may have been filmed days, weeks or months apart and have been included alongside one another in the same episode for the sake of generating narrational structure around the program.
Reality TV as documentary.
Brian claims that the term ‘factual TV’ is obsolete in light of programs that are preferably categorised as reality TV, such as Big Brother. Yet as Annette Hill highlights, shades of factual TV are visible in recent reality TV formats that exhibit “the natural ability of genres in making and remaking factuality” (p. 118). For instance, in a program as construed as Big Brother, the “invasive organisms” of the Big Brother house, such as its hidden cameras – and, by extension, the national general public – still depict a ‘reality’ in the sense that the show’s contestants are forced to adapt to obstacles imposed on them. The show’s ‘reality’ is predicated on the contestants’ natural response to the challenges of such an alternative lifestyle. Sure, the show’s writers look to have some dramatic narrative plot points feature at specific points within an episode, but such “script writing” relies on character profiling of the contestants on the crew’s part; an understanding of the true aspects of their personalities.
Annette Hill claims “The construction of cultural discourses surrounding reality TV as artificial, unnatural, threatening, invasive, as a moral and cultural risk to society, highlights feral properties that threaten the integrity of factual broadcasting and act as a barrier to genre diversity” (p. 118). I don’t doubt for a second that these negative aspects of television culture exist in the reality TV genre but, as I have outlined above, there are impressive production standards and well constructed case studies to be gleaned from certain reality TV programs. We should not be so quick to turn our nose up at the format as a whole.
– Hill, A. “Truth claims” Restyling Factual TV: News, Documentary and Reality Television. Psychology Press. 2007.
– Moran, A. “Configurations of the New Television Landscape”, A Companion to Television. Pp 291 – 304. 2009
– Morris, B. “Reality TV: Origins and Context”, Lecture/Class. RMIT University, unpublished.