The World Explained #8: Reality Television…Explained 

Around the end of the twentieth century, it was decided by a group of leading media executives that television programming was just not real enough. Sure, news and documentary programmes contained a certain element of factuality, but usually only concerned themselves with rich people or leopards or bombings or Africans, and not things that ever actually affected the lives of real people. So it was decided that from now on, the main purpose of television was to broadcast the lives of these same real people directly.

This initially created a problem: who were the Real People? How could they be told apart from, for instance, the Man on the Street, already a mainstay of radio news programmes and other such amateur productions? Identifying the average Joe was tricky, and depended greatly on which average was used. The median Joe had a two inch beard, while the modal Joe listened to the Bangles and had pancakes three times a year. The final decision was to use the only measure that really meant anything: 3 Ds at GCSE (It is worth noting, for those not familiar with the UK high school education, that the GCSE was the result of a mountain-and-Mohammed style situation, when it became very clear that there was no possibility of moving more students towards higher grades.)

The first wave of programmes were really just documentaries without a point of view: the idea was to leave a camera running in a place where people were getting on with their day-to-day activities, in such a way that they would act as usual and forget they were soon to be on national television. This idea was originally pioneered by motoring enthusiast OJ Simpson. Shows like Driving School relied solely on the drama and terror we all experienced at a young age of learning to drive while being surrounded by cameras and attempting to read an autocue. Like fictional dramas, the series created characters and conflicts and built up to a climax with the result of students passing their final driving test – approximately 2 Cs at GCSE. Similar series have followed: Airport, Hotel, Bus Stop, Airing Cupboard and Just Slightly Behind a Cow, each depicting the problems faced every day in these places.

The second wave originated, depending on whose story you believe, is either the Netherlands or Holland, with a show called Eine Gluupter Nahkt Und Smadistkaant. This was later renamed, by people who understand such words, as Big Brother. Its introduction to UK televisions signalled the end of television programming as we knew it. On their way out were plots, detailed and complicated characters, tension build-up and satisfying resolutions, all of which were replaced, for the most part, by a mechanical bull. Contestants on Big Brother and the host of reality TV game shows that followed required only a few things: an assortment of bigotries, a love of dancing, and above all, near perfect innumeracy – about a B at GCSE.

By the middle of this decade, reality television was omnipresent, all-consuming and everywhere in between. Most followed one of several basic formulae. One studio came up with an idea called Religion Swap, where two families meet up to experience each others’ Religion. In general, the hook of the programme came from one family hating the other family’s Religion, while the other family is offended that the first family do not seem to be enjoying their Religion. Then, the tables are turned, and it is the second family’s turn to have a go at the first family’s Religion, which they end up hating as much as the first family hated theirs. In the end, they both get together; thank each other for letting them try a different sort of Religion, then give ten reasons why the other Religion isn’t as good as their own Religion. At the last moment, the producers thought the show lacked substance, so changed it from Religion to Holiday, a shift that, to most of the UK audience, was practically unperceivable, such is the faith in the power of Majorca.

The programme had to manufacture drama by choice of participants, in a predictable fashion. An episode from March in 2004 had the following introduction: “The Carter family from Bristol enjoy potholing in France, love pork and are all allergic to wasps. The Stevenson family holiday every year at a wasp farm in Cornwall. They are all over eight feet tall and Jewish.” The show attracted criticism because it forced a Bristol family to go to Cornwall, sparking off bad feelings that had existed ever since Bristol won its independence from Cornwall, especially as it was scientifically assumed that it was the Carters that did it in the first place.

Many in the media have begun to realise that people no longer want reality television programmes taking up all the air time (there’s a documentary about it tonight at 7 pm, repeated at five past). Of course, for some people, reality television is an escape: a chance to break away from the monotony of everyday life into a world of televised, digitalised, unscripted, well, everyday life. To really get to understand reality television try learning to milk a pig, standing on a log, escaping from a prison and selling an antique vest – that is, the equivalent of 5 As at GCSE.