Reality TV. Love it or hate it, reality TV shows fill our screens, especially the free-to-air commercial stations. Our love affair with reality TV has even spawned a double-reality show. It is now possible to sit in your living room on a couch and watch on screen a range of people in their living rooms on their couches watching TV. I’m looking at you Gogglebox.
Sure reality TV is a great way to watch other people behaving badly and is good for a laugh, but reality programs are contrived set-ups and fill a large number of prime-time TV slots. If only the commercial stations would put on more of the critically acclaimed dramas and documentaries that abound on streaming services like Stan and Netflix, they might see a rise in viewers who switched to streaming when we struggled to find anything engaging to watch on free-to-air TV.
But reality TV is not unique. International versions of many well-known reality formats, like The Bachelor, Farmer Wants a Wife and the Real Housewives series are shown across the world. I confess I quite enjoy watching a couple of these reality shows. Yet it often feels as if I’m watching an impending car crash. It can be so hard to look away from the screen as the ‘stars’ yell, cry and verge from one chaotic confession and exposé to the next. There are hugs, altercations and displays of extreme emotions before lengthy discussions on these things that have just happened, as though we didn’t just watch it all.
On a recent catch-up with friends, I wondered why we spent a good part of our time together talking about recent episodes of Married at First Sight. I found I could barely follow the discussion on whether one couple would stay together or if another couple was a sham. Our conversation sounded like we were talking about mutual friends, but not only were they people we didn’t know, we were also unlikely to ever meet them.
The issue is that we talk about these characters like they are real people, friends even. It is worth noting that reality show casts generally present a distorted view of society, featuring mostly photogenic people, but lacking diversity of culture. Yet, while the people cast in these shows are real, their depiction on our screens is manipulated to increase viewership. This raises the question of ethics. When a show purports to be depicting authentic issues and situations, can a show be called reality if it features editing as well as character and plot storylines?
One fictional drama on our screens poses this and many other questions with regards to the dating show format. The show unREAL gives a look behind-the-scenes on the set of Everlasting, an invented show eerily similar to The Bachelor. It is here that the extensive editing and manipulation of contestants that usually goes unnoticed by audiences is exposed.
While occasionally stories of cast manipulation come to light in the media, more often our news headlines are a mix of frivolous reality TV discussions and serious stories. When a light plane crashed with fatal results in Melbourne’s north in late February, it was listed side-by-side in the daily news headlines with the cheating scandal of My Kitchen Rules. These stories are not of equal weight, yet the continued interest in these programs means that each unexpected twist becomes news, not just on the show, but on social media and more tabloid and commercial outlets.
Even the reporting of politics has become a strange type of reality TV, whereby our news of daily politics comes in soundbites, from outbursts in parliament to unusual comments in interviews. We often end up talking about politicians’ behaviour rather than their policies. Is it likely Donald Trump would have become the 45th President of the United States had he not been a star in his own reality show?
There is a saying of disputed origin, often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.’
When we talk about people, especially people we know only through our screens, we contribute to an ever-increasing stream of gossip and rumors. Ideas, on the other hand, have been known to evolve into inventions, businesses and solutions to real-world problems. Reality TV encourages us to talk about people.
Imagine what the world could become if we talked more about ideas.