Reality television has been much debated in the pages of The Australian. Some have argued that we learn basic questions about how to get along with those who are different through watching participants in the Big Brother household. Others have suggested that lifestyle programs provide a form of general education for a mass populace.
Writers such as John Hartley have even suggested there are echoes of classic Shakespearean texts in programs like Big Brother, although now the contestants are 'tamed' by the TV audience, participating in the drama from the Web sites on their computers or their SMS text messages sent by mobile phone. At the same time, critics have worried that the reality TV juggernaut is driving out locally-produced dramas and documentary programs, as the networks seek lower-cost prime-time filler.
I had a unique insight into these questions recently, as I appeared on the reality television show, Hot Auctions, on the Seven Network. Importantly, my appearance was not as an 'academic-in-residence', as others in media and cultural studies have done, but as a participant in the on-screen drama. I was cast in my 'other self', as the recently-married prospective new home buyer, seeking out a historic worker's cottage in the inner Brisbane suburb of Highgate Hill.
It all started innocently enough, with a call from the real estate agent wondering if I would participate in some research. With the image in my head of young students with clipboards, possibly from a Marketing or Property Economics course, wanting to ask me twenty questions about buying a house, I naturally agreed. When the return call came, and it was from the young researcher from Hot Auctions, asking if they could interview me for the show, I had to rethink my strategy.
What should a media academic do in these circumstances? I quickly concluded that I had to go on the show. I recalled Jean Baudrillard. In his talk to the Power Institute at the University of Sydney in 1994 he argued that reality TV meant that the luxury of passive spectatorship was over and we now had to perform on both sides of the screen. At that event I remembered not getting time to ask what seemed like the obvious question in response: "Professor Baudrillard, do you like reality TV?".
Although Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media in 1964, well before the reality TV boom, the gist of how it worked would not have surprised him. McLuhan observed that with TV it is not the message but the sender who is 'sent'. In other words, TV audiences fix on the characters well before they fix on the dialogue, so how one appears on the small screen matters enormously to how the audience engages with the program that you are a part of.
So I had to appear on the show, even if it meant getting a haircut and a new jacket for the occasion. What a media academic appreciates from being on the other side of the screen is that TV time is very different to real time. It took 40 minutes of interviewing on QUT's main lawn to get the moment where I revealed my price, which was $400,000. Twelve walks across Brisbane's Goodwill Bridge were required to capture the footage that showed how much I sought a house that allowed a quick walk to work. Twenty minutes at the University café, furtively pretending to read the real estate section and writing numbers on a notepad, were needed to get the shot that best exemplified host Michael Caton's observation that 'Terry had done his homework'. I acquired a new respect for the cast of Neighbours, and the many hours they must work to generate 100 hours of content for the Ten Network each year.
The auction itself was well designed for TV. The house had views of the Brisbane skyline, was well-lit and, best of all, its owners had bought a house three doors up the street, and up the hill, allowing them (and a camera crew) to look down on the drama unfolding beneath them. Mind you, history will probably judge my decision to wear an orange shirt for the auction, on the pretext that it would be noticeable for TV, to have been a fashion mistake.
As it was, newly-weds Angela and Terry didn't get the house, although the segment went on over two weeks. It was revealed in the program that the owner wanted $450,000 for the property. He finally settled for $437,500, to a buyer who didn't want to appear on television. This was unfortunate for the show's producers, as newly-weds Angela and Terry were the thwarted heroes of this drama, and they didn't get the chance to show their cats to a national audience.
Appearing on Hot Auctions nonetheless found Angela and me new friends in the most unlikely places. Emails came from obscure corners of the QUT bureaucracy, from ex-students, and from long-forgotten friends from interstate, asking whether we got the house. In the local faux Irish pub that I popped into one afternoon for a beer on the way home the next evening, people stared and pointed at me, before asking about the auction. In fact, some of them vaguely remembered me from a media studies unit they did at QUT some time ago.
Not long after the Hot Auctions program screened, I pondered whether this should go onto my academic CV. Indeed, the question in my head was whether I had performed community service for the University by appearing on the show. I concluded that I had, and dutifully entered the information onto the Queensland University of Technology's Community Service database. Under the category of 'Expert Opinion and Advice Given', I have listed myself as an unsuccessful home purchaser, who appeared on the Seven Network's Hot Auctions program on 20 and 27 August, 2003. Under the category of the number of beneficiaries of this activity, I have entered 2.2 million Australians. It remains to be seen whether this community service activity will be validated.