‘Popular factual programming’ or reality television, has rapidly and increasingly occupied a prominent place in modern-day television culture. Reality shows, attempt to manufacture an illusion of transparency by theoretically capturing life as it happens. In their book, Understanding Reality Television, media analysts, Sue Holmes and Deborah Jermyn, argue that reality TV’s ‘generic hybridity’ as well as its positive relationship with origins and style of documentary form make defining the genre almost impossible. A 2001 article in The Guardian tellingly suggested that the difficulty in defining reality TV lies in the fact that the genre has transcended depicting reality, moving on to a form of audience manipulation that greatly banks on the willingness of ‘celebrity wannabes’ in making misguided decisions and facing their consequences on TV. Candid Camera, created for radio as Candid Microphone, is believed to be the first and most enduring reality television programme ever produced, airing from 1948 to 2004 in the US. The show involved manufacturing a vexing situation for an alleged stranger while secretly filming her or his reaction to it. Holmes and Jermyn argue that even if the show’s reality was constructed, the ‘50s inept audience, utterly amazed and engrossed in watching people caught in the otherwise mundane act of being themselves, could not tell. A few decades later and during the cold war, Candid Camera, perpetuated ‘surveillance anxiety’ of the era, fascinating and infuriating those who were nursing a suspicion that their actions were being invariably monitored. Time Magazine described the show as ‘Machiavellian’ at the time, rebuking its attempts to ‘cross the last thresholds of privacy’. Nevertheless, the show generated immutable high ratings by finding novel ways to entertain its viewers at the expense of embarrassing someone on TV, from casting President Harry S. Truman to walk around Manhattan confronting unsuspecting citizens to getting Woody Allen to pose as a struggling, young comic galling people to make an extra dollar. English television producers envied the American reality show’s success and renowned TV personality, Jonathan Routh, finally brought the show to the UK in the 1960s; an Irish version soon ensued. Questions regarding the authenticity of the show’s setups rose to prominence in the ‘80s. In 1987, Journalist John O’Connor insisted in the New York Times that it was impossible for so many people to be as ‘gullible’ as depicted on the show, describing the mere possibility as ‘frightening’ thus concluding the said fear/shock factor as part of the show’s appeal. Reality shows flowered and thrived in the ‘90s, programmes including Crimewatch UK, Survivor, Big Brother and The Osbournes all went into production in the ‘90s or early ‘2000s.
Further, the advent of sophisticated videography tools as well as video-editing programmes, facilitated the distortion of reality to attract more viewers. In a memorable scene in Richard Attenborough’s Charlie Chaplin biopic, Chaplin’s biographer asks the comic how he selected his signature costume. Initially, the comedian relates a dramatised version of the truth, enhanced for the audience by computerised special effects; when the biographer expresses disbelief, Chaplin admits the exaggeration, reasoning that reality is often ‘boring’. That story, greatly exemplifies why producers of reality shows increasingly turn to technology to terrorise truth: the ennui of unedited life. The practice of dishonest editing to bolster entertainment dates back to the early days of Candid Camera on air and participants signed a ‘pre-broadcast’ contract agreeing to it. Under said contract ‘victims’ generously bestowed the rights of editing the recorded footage to TV producers in any way they deemed seemly ‘without obtaining any further consent’ , what Holmes and Jermyn describe as turning ‘helpless victimisation into willing participation’. Those enthused by the idea of appearing on TV signed, a situation eerily akin to our ready agreement to social media sites’ terms and conditions. After all, we too can edit our lives and attract more audiences to our online ‘reality’. As Holmes and Jermyn note, the title Candid Camera, also cleverly avoided negative connotations that could have been derived from a more accurate name, Covert Surveillance, for example. Editing footage to stir controversy for today’s modern-attention audience who turn to their television to evade their own daily lives’ ennui is now a common practice for reality TV producers. Reality shows thrive on manufacturing conflict. Deceitful editing involves cherry picking unflattering moments of a reality show’s participant or portraying their anger or irrationality and cutting out the circumstances that had inspired the wrath, with said power, producers create villains for audiences to despise and protagonists they would defend to a bitter end since reality TV is still storytelling. Note that most people appreciate a well-constructed story. Producers have allegedly gone as far as scripting reality shows to make the narratives more appealing to their audience. In 2016, British viewers were shocked by hearing the words, “Great take, guys” from behind the cameras while watching Big Brother, a production made to convince viewers of the authenticity of reality shows through live streaming. By casting people with opposing views, Big Brother also attempts to quench its audience’s desire for viewing conflict and violence. In 2015, gay, liberal celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and infamous, right-wing media personality Katie Hopkins (two people with clashing values) were stuck together in the Big Brother house and ended up physically attacking each other on camera.
Moreover, some critics hypothesised that a psychological phenomenon known as schadenfreude plays a significant role in our obsession with reality shows. Schadenfreude which means, shades of Freud, refers to a crude enjoyment that some people may derive from watching others’ misfortunes. If we deem the hypothesis valid, then a connection between schadenfreude and the success of reality talk shows such as Dr Phil can be readily observed. The show features participants with chronic and often peculiar addiction problems, mental health issues or marital woes. Another programme, Teen Mom, also depicts teenage girls who have fallen pregnant and are facing daunting difficulties as adolescent mothers. In a 2014 article in The New York Times Journalist and editor, Alyssa Rosenberg argued that schadenfreude also contributes to the success of shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Real Housewives, as the working-class audiences ‘enjoy watching ill-behaved rich’, retitling reality shows as ‘schadenfreude TV’. Richard H. Smyth, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky suggests that witnessing others’ disordered lives provides a powerful mental relief, making us feel automatically better about ourselves as humans have a stubborn tendency for comparison. Some critics also believe that more conservative viewers enjoy the reinforcements of gender and race stereotypes often depicted in reality shows.
Additionally, reality TV can induce good feelings by bolstering the notion of ‘from rags to reaches’ or overnight celebrity. The idea that most people want to be famous is part of the industry’s credo. Going back to the example of Candid Camera, the lyrics to the show’s jingle read as follows: “When you least expect it, you’re elected, you’re the star today, smile, you’re on Candid Camera”: significantly playing on humans’ unceasing need for attention and stardom. Most participants to reality shows have been influenced by watching their coevals acquire wealth or popularity by volunteering to compete or contribute to said shows. Reality competition shows including American Idol, The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent and Top Chef, all showcase a cohort of alleged ordinary people, often from the working-class, who achieve their goals and potentials by going on a competition show. The audience pertains to those people and feels exhorted to follow the same path; thus, TV producers kill two birds with one stone: generating more participants while boosting viewership. Reality shows rekindle their audience’s faith in fate, making them believe in the notion of meritocracy: if one is talented, clever or merely beautiful, one will become famous and rich by signing up to reality shows. That image is, of course, a mirage that has led to some contestants’ suicides which producers have audaciously exploited to enhance ratings by airing said stories as follow-up episodes: tragedy sells, and we are shamelessly buying.
Reality shows remain popular because observing others’ private moments is ostensibly deemed entertaining. Producers, bank on age-old marketable elements such as sex, violence and controversy thus distort the realism of their shows to, often artificially, include those factors, partly thanks to cutting-edge technology. Audiences’ perverse appetite for viewing other’s misery will also keep them watching, adding on to their own life satisfaction; and the everyman’s dreams of grandeur achieved by a peer on television keeps him hooked on reality TV.