Where do you think the future of reality television shows is heading? Will new forms of technology for example make an impact?
Reality TV, documentary and all filmed versions of reality have always been subject to a distortion of the truth, due to the perspective of the cameraman / director / producer. From Nanook of the North in 1922 to Real Housewives of Auckland, there has always been a difficult relationship with the need to make a coherent story and the fact that reality is, well, real. Often boring, complicated and built on circumstance, it is hard to present a real situation in an entertaining way. Reality TV as a concept is benign enough, but because of the complexities of filming real life, the bulk of it seems to lend itself to cheapness, exploitation and lazy filmmaking. However, there are positive developments in the field, and I believe there is hope yet for Reality TV.
The first actual documentary was the infamous Nanook of the North (1922) in which filmmaker Robert Flaherty changed so many details of the Inuit experience he filmed that he essentially created a new, whitewashed depiction of the race – one which permeated western beliefs for decades to come. John Grierson describes documentary as “The creative treatment of actuality,” (Bauer, 2019) and in this definition, we encounter the problem. It is impossible to free ourselves from the doors of perception (Huxley, 1963), so all attempts to film reality will always be coloured by the opinions/ beliefs of the filmmakers. There have been attempts, to be sure. High School (1968), directed by Frederick Wiseman, attempted to remain impartial, a few others tried too, but at the end of the day, even the simple action of cutting to another shot creates a Kuleshov effect (Hellerman, 2019), subliminally telling the audience what to think about a situation. By the nineties, filmmakers were so well aware of the way that Reality TV opened itself up to exploitation, they even made a movie about it – Reality Bites (1994), (Possibly the most nineties movie ever made). In it, despite all his good intentions, Ben Stiller can’t help but turn his girlfriend’s TV show into a shameless cash grab full of drama and bad music cues. Today, that sounds a lot like many of the 750 reality TV shows that America aired on cable TV last year (Bauer, 2019).
Flicking through channels one night, I counted 8 out of ten channels running reality shows. The other 2 were re-runs and the News. It can often be depressing, especially when so many people are aware of the false reality presented by these shows (Bauer, 2019). Big Brother, Dance Moms, The Kardashians, Married at First Sight, The Bachelor… just a teensy little bite of the mass of controversial “reality” TV that is on these days. Dance Moms has been accused of child exploitation (Marthe, 2016), Kim Kardashian is a walking, talking controversy and The Bachelor has contestants speaking out about traumatic events on set (Brookes, 2019). Not to mention the awful Benefits Street (Lamb, 2016), which had measurable negative effects on people’s perception of poor people in Britain.
But not all Reality TV is bad. There are some that genuinely influence people in a positive way, and spread a positive message. RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009 – present) is self-aware, entertaining, and has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on acceptance of homosexuality, transgenderism and queerness in society today, bringing drag and the people involved in it into the mainstream. Fun, inoffensive shows like Nailed It (2018 – present), a show about regular people attempting to make professional cakes, are positive, safe and entertaining, and even shows like Extreme Home Makeover (2003 – 2012), while still rather exploitative, at least present their subjects in a sympathetic framing – reminiscent of Cathy Come Home (Lamb, 2016). I also want to point out that millions of people nowadays consume media online – through “Vloggers.” People who are in control of their own filmmaking, editing and story structure, and therefore far more able to control their own level of exploitation. If you watch YouTube for example, the biggest online phenomena right now are PewdiePie, who is really just a guy who plays Minecraft and talks about memes, and Shane Dawson, who makes documentaries where he tries to humanise controversial YouTubers, and who people love because of how relatable he is, because of his multiple mental health and self-confidence issues (Ramasubbu, 2018).
To be honest, though there are plenty of trashy reality shows out there, I can see a much more diverse and interesting future on the horizon. With social media and the internet, people have more access to their audiences, and the mix of vlogging culture and reality TV could really make for some interesting content in future. Of course there will always be trash TV – as long as people make media, some of it is going to be bad. But it’s clear that people want to see other people just living their lives honestly, and we’ll continue to find new ways to do that.
Flaherty, R. (1922) Information retrieved October 30, 2019 from https://www.criterion.com/films/574-nanook-of-the-north
Bauer, J. (October, 2019) Documentaries vs. Reality TV: How They Shape Truth – Wisecrack Edition. Retrieved October 30, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNMV39sKyU4&t=929s
Huxley, Aldous, 1963. The Doors of Perception : and Heaven and Hell. New York :Harper & Row, 1963.
Hellerman, J. (January, 2019) The Kuleshov Effect: Everything You Need To Know. Retrieved October 30, 2019 from https://nofilmschool.com/Kuleshov-effect-definition
Marthe, E. (August 2016) The ‘Dance Moms’ Stars and Their Battle with Alleged Stalkers and Pedophiles. Retrieved October 30, 2019 from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wjee3m/the-dance-moms-stars-and-their-battle-with-alleged-stalkers-and-pedophiles
Brookes, E, October 2019. Ex Bachelor contestant Naz Khanjani says dating shows are a ‘disaster’ Retrieved October 30, 2019 from https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/tv-radio/116771111/ex-bachelor-contestant-naz-khanjani-says-dating-shows-are-a-disaster
Lamb, B. February 2016. Cathy Come Off Benefits: A comparative ideological analysis of Cathy Come Home and Benefits Street, Journalism and Discourse Studies Journal. ISSN 2056-3191
Ramasubbu, S. July 2018. 20 YouTube Channels Your Kids Probably Already Follow. Retrieved October 30, 2019 from https://www.cyberwise.org/single-post/2018/06/29/20-YouTube-Channels-Your-Kids-Probably-Already-Follow