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Reality TV doesn't give us much of a dose of reality

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

I have a shocking confession. Last Wednesday I watched Survivor instead of the new ABC series Australians at War. Documentary footage of war and mayhem versus a bunch of whingeing Americans play-acting in the outback. Hey, the choice was easy.

At the moment, we’re all het up about present reality, not the past. For some reality is scandalous, for others just entertainment. Right now, attention is fixed on Big Brother. Unless you’ve been off the planet you’ll know that this latest reference to Orwell is a reality show featuring 12 contestants cooped up in a house with 23 cameras filming 24/7, as the Americans like to say. They’re a real bunch of down home types, whose job descriptions include managing strippers, dominatrix and nightclub bouncer. Really just a cross section of life captured on tape. Don’t let the fact that the house is in Dreamworld fool you, this is real.

I’m afraid they’re too real for me. Caught in front of the many cameras, they act just like ordinary folk. They’re stilted or ham it up. And you have to feel sorry for them wearing those bulky radio mikes which are so unflattering. Then they all have to sleep together. On the family-time slot at 7.30, that’s all they do, although apparently on the web you can see them whipping each other. I’m sure it’s as exciting as low-budget porn, which is to say as fun as watching paint dry.


One of the problems of Australian knock-offs of reality programs is their lack of production values. This is somewhat paradoxical given that we’re supposed to be attracted to these shows for their reality values. But then the whole genre is riddled with contradictions. We tune in to see real people doing real things, then get upset when the set-up is obviously scripted. The petty jealousies and bitchiness of the players become central because nothing else is really going on.

A major element of the genre is that there will be scandal and accusations by contestants that they were manipulated. A British documentary that aired on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent (real TV about reality TV) featured a tearful lass from the English version of Big Brother. She was unaware that she’d become the most hated woman in the UK - contestants don’t have access to the media while they’re in the house - so when she emerged into the glare of cameras outside, she was shocked. As the Dutch producer said on the documentary, what did she expect? This is television.

For those who study the media, reality shows are interesting because they are precisely that: television. Most would agree that in terms of genre, the grandmother of reality TV is the daytime talkshow. And in many ways the talkshow is a more interesting genre. Dating back to the late 1960s and Phil Donahue, talkshows are fascinating because of the way they feature ordinary people. Before reality TV, they were the only part of television that showcased real people and their problems. Of course they’ve now become pretty surreal as producers chase after ever more novel real problems.

Because they’ve been around for decades, most people are clear that talkshows are carefully crafted. But key to the genre is the fact that ordinary people will come up with extraordinary issues and emotions. In the parlance of the genre, what the producers are after is the ‘money-shot’, that moment when emotion erupts. Linda Grindstaff, an American media researcher who spent a year doing ethnographic research behind the scenes, points to the similarities between talkshows and porn in terms of how the money-shot is managed. As viewers of either porn or talkshows, we’re drawn to the genre for that moment when seemingly ordinary people explode.

We’re well aware that the scenarios are contrived, and it is now the very convolutions of the script that attract us. People tune into Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer to see how they can up the ante in terms of far-fetched plots, and to see the all-too human reactions of jealousy and rage.

Sometimes tragedy becomes way too real. A couple of years ago the American talkshow, Jenny Jones, featured the topic of people who have secret crushes, and invited the objects of the crush and the crushees onto the show. It was actually same sex crushes, although some of the guests didn’t know it. When one guest found out that his male friend had a crush on him, he exploded on TV and then in the real world. The money-shot turned into murder. One former guest is dead, the other is serving a life sentence.


Scandal and court cases ensued. People talked earnestly about how bad talkshows are. The familiar refrain of "it’s all the fault of television" was well-aired. But for me the most shocking element of the tragedy was the fact that the father of the killer got a lot of air-time blaming television for what his son did. It’s enough to make you fall off the couch in horror: this man took no responsibility whatsoever for having raised a homophobic killer.

Those who are not fans of the genre often wonder why people watch talkshows or reality TV. My educated guess is that it is something about the staging of real emotion. In the new generation of reality TV there’s also the crude but compelling mixture of team spirit versus rugged individualism. Shows like Survivor give us a vision of human sociality stripped naked. The big draw seems to be that we can watch real, if not very likeable, people do unreal things in order to win. And we get to squeal in outrage about the fact we’re watching it.

But what about individual responsibility? After Survivor finishes this week we get Boot Camp where contestants endure a sergeant-major telling them what miserable gits they are. Maybe it’ll drill into the recruits and us that we have to take responsibility for our actions on TV and in life. Get real!

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This article was first published in The Australian on 2 May 2001.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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