Twenty or so years ago, the title of this post would have been associated with only one thing, namely the single finest piece of literature written during the 20th century (there you go, I said it). However, in the past decade and a bit, this has all changed somewhat, and Big Brother now no longer refers to some all-seeing eye of oppression and dictatorship but to some strange TV show about people doing weird things in a house. Except that that ‘strange TV show’ happens to be the most famous product of one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the noughties; reality TV.
The concept of reality TV is an inherently simple one; get a bunch of not entirely normal people, point some cameras at them, give them a few things to do and enjoy yourself giggling at their unscripted activities and general mayhem. If the people in question happen to be minor celebrities then so much the jollier; anything to draw in the viewers. However, it is not just this basic format that makes reality TV what it is, but the obsessively following nature of it; reality TV is there all day, every day, reported on sister shows, constantly being mentioned in the ad breaks, and making itself felt in the media. In the past, the people and events concerned with the genre have made headline news and have been talked about by the Prime freakin’ Minister (Gordon Brown, specifically), and for a couple of years it was hard to get away from its all-pervading grip.
The first TV show that could be defined as ‘reality television’ was Candid Camera, which first came into being back in 1948. This basically involved a guy (Allen Funt) wandering round a city performing pranks of various descriptions on unsuspecting members of the public, whilst someone hid in the background filming their reactions; how this was possible given the camera technology of the 40s always baffles me. This format is still in existence today, in shows such as Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV, and since then the genre in its broadest terms has gained a few more sub-genres; unscripted police/crime TV in the style of Crimewatch came along in the 50s and the 60s experimented in a style that we would now consider more of an observational documentary. During the 70s, Chuck Barris invented the concept of and hosted the first reality game shows such as ‘The Dating Game’ (a forerunner to Blind Date), and these introduced the concept of, rather than simply filming normal people in normal environments doing normal things, putting these people in a structured situation specifically designed to entertain (even if said entertainment came at the expense of a little dignity). The reality shows that were popularised throughout the late nineties and early noughties took the concept to extremes, taking people completely out of their normal environment and putting them in a tightly controlled, heavily-filmed, artificial construct to film everything about them.
One of the early pioneers of this type of television was the American show Survivor. Here, the isolation environment was a tropical island, with contestants split into ‘tribes’ and tasked to build a habitable living environment and compete against one another for rewards. Survivor also introduced the concept of ‘voting off’ contestants; after each challenge, tribes would gather to select which participant they wanted to get rid of, causing the number of participants to dwindle throughout until only one ‘Sole Survivor’ remained. The idea here was to derive entertainment from inter-group conflicts, initially as people attempted to get their living space sorted (and presumably bitched about who wasn’t pulling their weight/was being a total jerk about it all), later as people began to complain about the results of challenges. The key feature that distinguishes this show as reality TV in the modern sense concerns the focus of the show; the challenges and such are merely background to try and provoke the group tensions and dynamics that are the real hook producers are aiming for. The show also displayed another feature commonly demonstrated on reality TV (and later shown more clearly on game shows such as The Weakest Link) that added a tactical element to proceedings; early on, voting of weaker members is advantageous as it increases your success rate and thus potential prize, but later it makes sense to vote off the other competitors who might beat you.
In Britain, Castaway soon followed in a similar vein, but removed the element of competition; ‘castaways’ were merely whisked off to a Scottish island for a year and tasked to build a self-sustaining community in that time. The show was originally intended to not be reality TV in the traditional sense, instead being billed as ‘an experiment’ to see what a selected cross-section of British society would come up with. However, in response to falling ratings later in the year, the show’s producers increased the number of cameras around the island and became increasingly focused on group dynamics and disputes. The reason for this can be explained in two words: Big Brother.
The concept behind Big Brother took the concept of Survivor and tweaked the focus of it, playing down the element of challenge and playing up the element of semi-voyeurism. Tropical island was replaced by house, with a large open-plan central area that made all drama very public and obvious. And everything was filmed; every weird conversation that presenters could make fun of, every time somebody complained about who was leaving the toilet seat up (I don’t know, I never watched it)- all was filmed and cleverly edited together to create a kind of blooper real of people’s lives for viewers to snigger at. Playing down the element of competition also introduced the practice of letting viewers, rather than contestants, vote people off, both increasing the watchability of the show by adding some minor element of interactivity and turning the whole thing into some kind of strange popularity contest, where the criteria for popularity are ‘how fun are you to watch messing around on screen?’.
Nowadays reality TV is on the way out; Channel 4 cancelled Big Brother in the UK some years ago after ratings slumped for later seasons, and with the TV talent show looking to be not far from following popular culture has yet to find a format for the ‘teenies’ (has nobody managed to think of a better name than that yet’) to latch onto and let define the televisual era. Let’s hope that, when it does, it has a little more dignity about it.
Man, and I don’t even watch reality TV…