Last year I won the public vote on Channel 4’s social-media-inspired reality series The Circle. It was new to me and I had a blast. I was awed by the way editors jigsawed together the unrehearsed activities of the performers, myself included, to create coherent and compelling drama.
My experience has inspired me to look more closely at the phenomenon of reality TV. I’ve binge-watched numerous shows and spoken to dozens of contestants, particularly from the longer shows where the cast members are isolated together for a period and attract prime-time audiences such as Love Island or The Circle. This is TV that allows us to “see ourselves as others see us”.
Reality TV is about character. Prize money might seem important but when it comes to making a watchable series only two things really matter – that the cast is vibrant and that the editors know what they are doing. When I was in The Circle, I felt at home. I trusted production completely and it did me proud.
But the psychological effect can also be harsh. I know of many participants who have struggled and reached for proffered help that is simply not there. Sometimes, they can feel betrayed or manipulated, or that they lost control, both during the show and afterwards. The readjustment is hard.
It is hard, also, if one is recruited as I was. The flattery in being called up out of the blue on a cold rainy day in Cambridge is the first step in a progressive surrender of self that can take a long time to recover.
To survive the next decade, reality TV needs to focus on what it does best, devising and producing original entertainment, and allow its participants to be professionally guided
In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, when Eliza Doolittle works hard and wins the bet for Professor Henry Higgins, she asks him, “What’s to become of me?” It is a question any reality TV participant could ask: how do we avoid or repair the damage? How, indeed, do we ensure that the game is remembered as a positive experience? That, surely, is in everyone’s interests.
Those who take part in reality series would perhaps suffer less and certainly be better protected if we had status within the union for the creative industry, Equity. I do not understand how a union founded in the closing days of Music Hall to cater for artistes of all types, could snub reality TV. Equity explained to me that they reasoned participants were “performing as themselves.”
But that is the point: reality TV players are still demonstrably performing; in the case of The Circle, are often also “catfishing”, sustaining a character over the course of many days – a demonstration, if ever there was one, of the Stanislavski Technique, routinely taught in drama schools around the world. Whether Equity likes it or not, we are actors in a television drama, entirely dependent on production because we are ignorant of script, plot and conclusion. We are also often ignorant of the audience response.
The current approach – backed up by contracts that often duck a performance fee – arguably mischaracterises our activity and prevents participants from unionising just as it discourages us from being represented by reputable agents. But the point remains. What are we doing if we are not performing?
Because there is no separate protection for participants, production is often forced into a pastoral role, leading to some of the work being subcontracted or performed directly by staff often unsuited or wearing too many hats. To survive the next decade, reality TV needs to focus on what it does best, devising and producing original entertainment, and allow its participants to be professionally guided.
Government efforts to make reality TV safe remain incomplete. In over a year of hearings, only four contestants ever offered any evidence before the Culture Committee. The inquiry was wound up hastily, and ultimately endorsed current practice and promised psychiatry as a cure-all.
We must make every effort to ensure the TV programming we put out nationally is safe, and that viewers can be comfortable watching it. They should not have to learn later of the catalogue of suicide and misery that dogs production. In the end, it is not just about the tiny group of reality TV performers, but about the millions of viewers who want to tune into a feel-good show.
We have to ensure that reality TV merits proper independent support for participants. Exposure on TV should be life-enhancing. If this is an industry worth saving – and I think it is – it is professionalism that is needed.
March 18th print edition