Popular Genres Week 11/12: Reality TV

What effects do you think that reality television has on society when programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show are labelled as ‘tabloid trash’ and docu-soaps such as Benefits Street are called ‘poverty porn’?

Reality television is supposedly the filming or documentation of regular people and their life situations. Whatever various show runners tell their viewers about the authenticity of the show, it is general consensus that the various shows pertaining to this genre are meant for entertainment, rather than to inform us as an audience.

While there are fictional shows in the drama category and truly informative shows in the documentary format, reality TV generally lives somewhere in between. According to the Cambridge Dictionary (n.d), reality TV concerns “television programmes about ordinary people who are filmed in real situations, rather than actors.” While this is debatable in and of itself regarding how real the situations are rather than set up, the ‘stars’ on reality TV are generally people who have applied to be on such shows. The general public likes to watch the average joe and how they would go about making certain choices on national television.

Examples of ‘reality’ shows that make use of various people are the Jeremy Kyle Show and Benefits Street. These shows centre around people and their life problems. Jeremy Kyle, like an american counterpart Dr Phil, feature all kinds of people coming on TV to share their private lives and scandalous problems/affairs with the host, who offers solutions or gets the arguing participants to communicate. In much the same way, Benefits Street is a show that involves exposing people and their problems, but in a more specific way. The hook for Benefits Street is that it is posed as a kind of documentary capturing the lives of the people living on the most benefit dependent street in England. However, both of these shows (and others like it) are heavily criticised for being trashy, and in the case of benefits street, ‘poverty porn.’ I believe the reason for this is because of the way these shows often expose people and do little to help those in the situations we see. In the case of Jeremy Kyle, any of the participants could seek help from a less public source and avoid biased opinions and judgement from both the host and the general public on a public platform … although the point can be made that it might be cheaper to go on these shows than it is to seek out professional help privately.

It is the general public that is providing viewing figures and hence providing a way for the shows to continue. I believe that society’s penchant for gossip is to blame for the rise of these shows described as trashy and that, with the rise of these shows, the effect on society is that we exploit people who we otherwise wouldn’t know. People have become cold in the sense that when we watch these shows, we just want to know the juicy details and scandalous secrets and not empathise with the people on screen. In fact, the show producers manipulate the people on the show to produce confrontation and excitement while exposing peoples flaws and gaining views. Alex Taylor (2019) from BBC News writes regarding the host provocation, “On The Jeremy Kyle Show, meanwhile, the host was “as confrontational as the audience”, he says…The format relied on an emotional reaction for entertainment value.” Here we can see that the show is meant to be sensational. Jeremy Kyle himself, having previously worked on a radio show that focuses on public confessions, is no stranger to knowing what works and gains figures as people are generally curious to tune in and hear about the problems other people have. Alex Taylor (2019) also writes “In 2007, a judge famously summed up the show as “a form of human bear-baiting”.” However, it is the vulture-like feel to these shows that are criticised the most in the sense that it focuses on and enlarges the participants flaws. This kind of exposure, common earlier with tabloid magazines focusing on the lives of celebrities and their scandals, has now been made for the general public. Taylor (2019) writes “The pressure upon researchers to book guests meant it was not uncommon to “play down someone’s mental health issues in their filings”.”

In the case of Benefits Street, the term poverty porn has been used. Now, if we take pornography to involve the objectification of people based on surface level aspects, Benefits Street does garner criticism for making its ‘protagonists’ objects for the sake of entertaining people of a higher socioeconomic position in life… a kind of ‘wow, I’m glad that’s not us’ response is often the case. People in these kinds of shows, whether they be Benefits Street or The Undateables (as another example) are exploitative in that they often diminish the participants to that of ‘poor’ or ‘disabled’, making them either objects of pity or ridicule for the audience.  Wikipedia (n.d), describes poverty porn as a “criticism applied to films which objectify people in poverty for the sake of entertaining a privileged audience.”

In essence, this is a kind of fetishisation. While the creators of Benefits Street claim that they are bringing exposure to this poverty problem (which I suppose exposure is true), they don’t actually do anything, other than filming, to alleviate the woes of the people we see. Once the show is finished and viewing figures provide success, the show makers make profit. An effect this show has had on the street is that it has attracted viewers to visit it, ogling at the less fortunate. Steven Morris (2014), writes for The Guardian regarding an example of sightseers, “Roofers Ben and Seth were the next sightseers to park their white van on the corner of the Birmingham street, one of the most deprived in the UK, and snap pictures of each other. “I’ve watched the programme three times,” said Seth. “I bet the people here are realising they’ve fucked themselves up by taking part. But it’s good that this sort of film is showing them up,” added Ben. “We travel around these sort of streets a lot. We’re working while people like this are wanking around.” ” As you can see, certain members of the public have taken to casting judgement.

As The Jeremy Kyle Show encourages controversy and Benefits Street has encouraged viewers to become tourists to this less fortunate neighbourhood, people have become more cold to how they view people at a distance through the lens of television. Reality TV has essentially enabled the public to became spectators at the zoo or circus when it comes to other human beings, as sensationalist shows continue to spark curiosity for ‘the other half’.

References: 

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d). reality TV. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/reality-tv

Taylor, A. (2019). How The Jeremy Kyle Show became a ‘toxic brand’. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-48281092

Wikipedia. (n.d) Poverty porn. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_porn

Morris, S. (2014). Benefits Street draws sightseers and media to Birmingham neighbourhood. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jan/10/benefits-street-birmingham-neighbourhood-channel-4

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