So is it just me, or does the level of reality TV seem to have been reaching greater and greater heights (or should that be lows) lately? The Block on three times a week, My Kitchen Rules a few times a week, and hours and hours of prime time devoted to watching ‘reality’ play out on the small screen. What is the fascination with reality TV? And why do new shows, and variations on existing shows, just keep appearing?
From a TV network’s perspective I can understand the attraction. These shows are incredibly cheap to make (you don’t have to pay a cast, or writers (well…some clearly do)), corporate sponsorship covers most of the cost (Masterchef bought to you by Countdown, The Block brought to you by Bunnings), and the shows rate their socks off. But why? Why do these shows cause people to lose their socks (assuming that is what ‘rate their socks off’ really means. I am not really sure)?
Let’s start with one of the most ubiquitous of reality TV trends currently – food porn. You can watch ordinary people cook. You can watch chefs cook. You can watch horrible chefs be mean to other horrible chefs (yes, I am talking about you, Gordon). You can watch kids cook. But why? Your wife/husband/partner/parent might be cooking at the same time as the show is on – why not just go in the kitchen and watch them? I am guessing there are two reasons. 1. You might learn about new and interesting things/ways to cook from these shows. 2. Your wife/husband/partner/parent isn’t competing with other people. Watching your partner whip up a curry in the kitchen on his own just isn’t compelling watching.
Why not? Because, at the end of the day, although billed as ‘reality’, it isn’t approximating real at all. These shows are carefully manipulated to ensure they have the key elements that any scripted show needs in order to draw in viewers – conflict, a good story, and interesting characters. You only need to have watched one episode of American Idol or X Factor to know that they don’t just pick the singers based on talent, they also throw in a few ‘characters’ to make sure there will be drama, tears and tantrums aplenty. If everyone was polite and boring it wouldn’t make for good TV.
Our most recent local example of dire reality TV – The GC – was a fantastic example of how bad something can be if these ingredients are missing. You can try manufacturing drama out of everyday events – but you need more than someone getting a little flustered and breaking a few glasses. And yes, audiences will see through poorly scripted ‘real’ scenes. They know the very subtle difference between puppets pulling strings (which we all should acknowledge right now happens in ALL reality TV), and puppets putting words in the mouths of would-be babes.
So, although being a card-carrying member of the Anti-Reality TV Association of New Zealand (anyone else want to join? I have at least 99 spare cards…) I can appreciate there are various degrees of crapness within the genre. I guess my main concern with the predominance of reality TV is that it will impact on the range and quality of scripted TV out there. But, if anything, the opposite seems to be true. There are a plethora of fantastic shows on now – Homeland, Game of Thrones, Justified, to name a few – and if anything TV is producing more original and ground-breaking ideas than it’s big-screen offsider (yep, just wait for my future blog on the predominance of remakes in Hollywood…). Even in New Zealand, for every dire episode of Police 10-7 or Border Patrol we have a fantastic new show like Nothing Trivial or The Almighty Johnsons. Hence, I suppose I have to thank reality TV for giving TV networks more money to spend on decent programmes. But – whatever you do – don’t tell the Ridges I said that…