I have recently been looking at very early examples of what is today called “Reality TV”. Every Tuesday, I am the guest on a podcast called Survivor FSFW Rewind. It is mind-blowing, frankly. On the one hand, Survivor anticipates today- the sort of communication it demands is exactly a formula for today’s social media in its aggressive simplicity and apparent immediacy. Today we take this immediacy for granted as a normal means of communication. On the other hand, it is unashamedly manipulative and cruel, also something we have got used to in the way our 21st Century society operates.
There are ethical issues sparked by a string of news stories about depression and suicide. Often the media trots out the same line about participants having “problems dealing with fame”, but this seems far from the truth; many reality “stars” have staggered into the tv world under a smokescreen of misinformation and manipulation. I also read another trotted-out trope that has forced me to write a brief piece today. Specifically, that contestants “brought it on themselves” or they were “a little bit daft to apply”.
Let me make this clear. Many of the contestants I have spoken to, like me, did not apply to be on reality tv at all. They were head-hunted by very industrious and wiley producers who know what and who would make good tv. Frankly, my producer found me and I had every confidence in him. In my case, this was a process that was completed with astonishing speed in the run-up to filming, so speedily, in fact, that my contract arrived only days before I was due to begin the shoot. I have no doubt that mine is not an exceptional case, therefore and that very few contestants would have time to take any serious advice.
Here, I part company with many of the sob stories that I have read or heard recently, because for the duration of the show, I was treated magnificently on set and had a wonderful time. I had a very close relationship with the production team and forged strong friendships.
Many issues in Reality tv are about the level of competition, public humiliation, deceit and mis-editing that often goes into getting a good story. I was exceptionally lucky. The circle, for all its obsession with lying or catfishing did not nurture a “nasty nick” and certainly I felt there was an overall warmth in the way the show was put together. I hope this is retained in future series, though a more strategic form of the game has certainly emerged in the Brazilian, French and US versions all bizarrely filmed on the same set and at about the same time.
There are two or three ethical considerations in the format that cannot be overlooked and should not be overlooked by a professor of Theology! The first is about the professional standards of the production team, and its responsibility to the audience and to the participants, the latter’s rights and the team’s responsibilities, both ethical and legal. Essentially, this amounts to doing no harm to either, but I would argue that it may be doing good to both, especially when it stresses the element of social experiment. This was certainly the tag-line of Big Brother, which, to judge from the clips recently put out on channel 4, was actually one of the most repulsive, distateful and exploitative pieces of television ever recorded. It was also, I can well-believe, absolutely bewitching to watch first-time round. It is Brillaint television. This is why it has lasted for 20 years.
And the levelling effect of such reality TV: I was astonished to finally see the George Galloway scene. What a plonker he is. In those few minutes where he pretends to be a female cat, he threw away any hope he may have had of resuming a political career.
But bear-baiting and gladiatorial combats went on for far longer that the 20 odd years that have made reality tv successful. That something is entertaining, compelling viewing and popular does not make it right. That some fool gets his come-uppance does not actually justify putting him in a position where he destroys his own career.
When it comes to Galloway, I dither. But there it is, lapping imaginary milk, the defining moment of his political careeer.
It seems that reality tv shows fall into a range of fairly easily-classified types.
1) The castaway survival, improvisation
3) docu-fiction – like the Victorian kitchen
4) game show
5) makeover- from theatre auditions to house-cleaning
6) detective- this could be in the form of identifying a mole or catfish
There may be other forms, but they seem to all share the feature of an edited portrayal of real-lived experience often focusing on non-professional or supposedly non-professional participants in managed or controlled situations that are filmed.
The mix of fact and fiction and the simple ruse of filming whatever happens is a formula that invites ethical problems. Throwing a known camera into a community automatically creates problems because the participants are dealing with an audience through the camera lens that goes well beyond the people they know, and those who are filming or producing them. the camera is there to catch the moral lapse as entertainment, and to promote the actions of participants as some sort of guideline by which the unseen audience watching their tvs can use to check their own moral compass. That wider TV audience can be deeply unkind, as was seen in their response to Jade Goody. The participants are largely unprepared for the impact they will have had on this wider audience. With modern social media, that can be conveyed to the participants very quickly. In my show, James who played Sammie, was sent death threats. This is astonishing and disturbing. It is detestable.
It is also misguided. What the public saw was the development of a thing called the “circle of Trust”, itself a by-product or what I thought of as a circle of reciprocity. It was designed to “take down” one of the three central characters, Ella, Woody and myself. I tried in vain to block myself but I was told this was against the rules and so I blocked Ella. I had no idea that this was all a result of some form of alliance or strategy and I was quite shocked when I learnt about it. However, the relationship I had with Sammie went far beyond that circle of trust. It was predicated on a number of very warm conversations we had about our early childhood and there was a bond between Sammie/James and myself which exists even today. This was not part of the producers’ narrative and perhaps got in the way of the story they were telling. sadly, some very nasty people took that two-dimensional narrative and sent these hateful emails and memes. As I say, misguided.
There is always editing, and arguably that means it is never truly “real life”.
The ethical consideration here is about what goes on beyond the screen, and after the performance. But it is tied, of course, to the organisation and selection of what is shown on the programme. As was demonstrated recently by Eamon Holmes, a mis-timed edit can have very serious consequences, but what seems right in the cutting room may actually have an impact well beyond what was intended. The programme makers cannot anticipate and arguably cannot be held responsible for the way the audience respond even when it comes to the specific way edits have been selected.
There are, moreover, commercial and theatrical as well as ethical considerations. The producers have a duty to tell a good story and to retain their viewers. They have a duty to share-holders and to advertising revenue.
Reality TV, however, needs to look at 4 ways in which participants are presented.
1) their privacy is invaded and intimacy compromised. This is already an area of debate and things that our parents would have considered particularly private are bandied about in public. Privacy is in flux.
2) their self esteem is manipulated. This is about mockery, humiliation and deception. Degrading treatment or the sense of being degraded by others and in the interests of popular entertainment. being devalued or demeaned. This could simply be a sense of disempowerment and it may go beyond the period of broadcast. This is an area that is of particular interest because this is what is often cited- how participants feel cheated, used or cast aside.
3) they are engaged in deceit. This is difficult because most reality tv shows involve deception. There is the basic deception that what is seen is real while it is viewed, sometimes filmed by camera crews and edited. This is digested reality. In the case of the first series of SURVIVAL, many scenes are not caught on cemera and are replaced with “confessional moments” or re-creations of conflict. Better to show, not tell. But we cannot un-say or un-do something that now determines a particular course of behaviour and so the confessional reports are necessary to explaining the unfolding drama. This is certainly not reality nor truth.
Other forms of deceit would be misinformation or even worse disinformation.
Better than thinking of deceit, maybe one should think more broadly of Reputation. This is about the managed presentation of performers both on the show and afterwards. It is a staged presentation and recognised as such.
4) they are the property of the show. The participants are the product and cannot be disentangled from that. It leads to some very odd clauses in contracts or some vague cover-alls that would probably not survive serious legal scrutiny. Memes, images, expressions and personalities somehow shift into the realm of production and because there is little distinction between the peformance and the real-life persona, there is room for ethical confusion. At what point, if ever, can they be disentangled from the show?
I worry that some of these shows are exploitative and that we have bought into what is, frankly, cheap and questionable entertainment. Contestants on Love Island have told me amusingly that there are whole swathes of the day’s activity that are never filmed- (the “off-time”) and interesting conversations about philosophy, books, even rugby are of no consequence at all. However, if but a single word is spoken about romance, the meal is interrupted and the conversation rehashed without food in front of the cameras. Love island is dull because its inhabitants appear to have only one thing on their minds (and never eat). That is nonsense. All the participants I have met are interesting, interested, well-informed and dynamic people. But I have told them quite honestly that this is why I switched off after episode 4 and will not watch the trash again. They all seem lovely and far superior to the way they are presented. I think the show cheapens them! There! I have said it. (I will get into such trouble… I must stop writing here)