Reality television: a straightforward title for a straightforward concept, right? Does what it says on the tin. But how authentic is reality television? The guise of ‘reality TV’ has pretty much been a late 20th Century/early 21st Century phenomenon, yet it has infiltrated public consciousness so profoundly that it is hard to imagine a world free from it. The lives of the stars in our favourite shows have become obsessions to many, but exactly how real is their ‘reality’?
Widely lauded as the original reality TV series, MTV’s ‘The Real World’ began broadcasting in 1992, its main purpose being an original, social experiment. The world was a completely different place then, much less intrusive and invasive than now. Only a mere two decades ago the internet didn’t exist, nevermind the concept of reality TV. The idea of giving unprecedented access to the lives and relationships of seven or eight individuals from varying classes, ethnicities and genders was the stuff of experiments, not prime time television broadcasting. Yet, the format attracted viewers through basic human curiosity (a polite way of saying we’re all nosey as hell), proved successful and progressed from there.
For most Irish viewers, our first experience of reality television was Channel 4’s first broadcasting of Big Brother in 2000. The format was generally the same as MTV’s show, except that the contestants were kept completely isolated from the outside world. Hugely popular, the show allowed everyday viewers to observe, judge, cringe and laugh at other human beings from the comfort of their armchair (it’s a bit weird when you put it like that isn’t it?).
So, from such a fresh and original concept, what has reality television morphed in to? Those of you who haven’t been living under a rock for the last decade don’t need me to point out that giving today’s programmes the title ‘social experiment’ would be laughable. The world of reality TV has got increasingly louder, brasher and more in your face. Big Brother itself progressively got worse and worse each year as, surprise surprise, contestants realised the benefits of appearing on the show. Entering the Big Brother house became more of a career move than genuine participation, destroying the integrity of the show, and definitely giving rise to the title ‘Z List Celebrity’.
In mentioning the failing integrity of a reality TV show, you can’t avoid mentioning what I like to call the Holy Trinity of the new, unashamed face of realty television; Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore and, the cringiest in my opinion, Tallafornia. I don’t think human beings have ever acted in those ways without cameras on them; even the apes we descended from didn’t behave like that. Abrakebabra at 3am on a Thursday night couldn’t hold a candle to the levels of public embarrassment members of these shows regularly subject themselves to.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily admit to following the exploits of these characters with real interest. Mike ‘The Situation’ has always been a firm favourite, but Cormac from Tallafornia is a force of pure awkwardness to be reckoned with. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have at least a passing interest in these shows and didn’t have some notion of the on-going storylines. They’re a guilty pleasure and if there are people out there willing to make a fool of themselves on a global scale for my entertainment, you won’t see me stopping them. I’m like any other human being, I love laughing at the idiocy of others.
Retaining the title of ‘Reality TV’ for these shows is a bit misleading though. Let’s be honest, if half the situations that occurred in these character’s lives happened to any normal person in the real world, they’d think they were being filmed secretly for some wind-up show. And isn’t that what’s essentially happening really? The reality of the characters on modern reality shows is a manufactured one, a reality designed to draw an audience. And as hilarious as this often proves to be, ‘Reality TV’ has ironically lost touch with reality.