chapter  2
28 Pages

Big Brother moment

Reality television is a relatively new cultural formation. Early examples of entertainment about real people can be found in historical radio and television programmes, where members of the public participated in talk radio or gameshows and light entertainment. But the reality genre we know of today has a fast and furious history. Gary Carter (2013), Chairman of Northern Europe, and Chairman 360° Shine Group, notes: ‘As far as genre is concerned, reality TV is the most significant innovation of the last 15 years.’ Why has reality TV been such a significant genre over so short a time span? The genre caught the media industry and popular imagination in

the late 1980s as something called infotainment, and gathered pace in the 1990s as something called factual entertainment. In its earlier forms there were a range of programmes such as 999 with reconstructions and public information, Cops with ‘caught on camera’ crime, MTV’s Real World with fly-on-the-wall observations, or Animal Hospital (BBC 1994-2004, UK) with real stories and regular television personalities. These programmes generally offered

different kinds of information and entertainment about ordinary people, such as students, hospital workers or pet owners. Then, in the late 1990s, along came Big Brother, Survivor and Pop Idol. Reality formats took off like rockets. This hybrid form of competitive reality dominated the global media market: not a local series but an international format; not television but cross-media content; not one product but multiple consumption points in media and music, in entertainment and leisure. Anything that contained real people, and celebrities, in some combination of unscripted social observation and competition, became known as reality TV. Alongside this industry account there also exists the history of

audiences for reality TV. What people thought and felt about reality television before and after Big Brother is just as much a part of the history of the genre. Intertwined with the institutional players are the individuals, audiences and publics who helped shape its success. According to Carter (2014), ‘genre emerges in the dialogue between producer and audience’. Millions of people in diverse cultures and regions were the viewers, fans, users and consumers who turned on the TV, voted, showed up to live events, bought stuff, downloaded videos, tweeted and liked something reality TV had to offer; conversely millions of people, even some of the same people, turned off the TV, refused to vote or participate, bought other stuff, uploaded alternative videos and disliked something about reality TV. Indeed, the more successful reality television became as formatted entertainment during the 2000s, the more it was publicly criticized. This may seem a paradox given the unrivalled success of the genre according to industrial accounts. But the history of reality television audiences is full of opprobrium. This is partly because the genre is populist and tends to attract public censure for being low-brow entertainment for the masses, and partly because some shows cover controversial or taboo subjects in ways that invite censure. Before Big Brother, people quietly talked up reality TV and its entertainment about real people – for example this woman said ‘it shows you what good television you can make out of absolutely nothing’. After Big Brother people talked down reality TV – this man summed it all up as ‘really tacky and really kind of sad’. This chapter maps reality TV up to the point of Big Brother and

the advent of competitive reality formats. It is a history of two

different notions of mediated reality. According to John Corner (2014):

The transition from world space to television space around the time of Big Brother had important implications for what Corner calls ‘reality’ relations. It signalled the opportunism of reality TV producers in a changing international media market, where experimentation in mixed genres and content provision generated high ratings and internet users, especially with young audiences. The shift in emphasis from world space in 1990s factual entertainment to the television space of many entertainment formats also signalled changing ‘reality’ relations in the participation of ordinary people in popular entertainment and audience engagement with these new kinds of celebrities. The context of America and Britain provide the backdrop to this

short history of reality TV. This is because major moments in the development of this entertainment genre arose within the institutional and cultural contexts of America, Britain and Northern Europe. In terms of reality formats Northern Europe, and the UK in particular, took a leading role in format origination, production and distribution, with major formats such as Strictly Come Dancing (also Dancing with the Stars), The X Factor, Got Talent, MasterChef, The Voice and Big Brother all originating from format houses based in the UK and Holland. For a global perspective on the history of the genre see edited collections such as The Reality TV Reader (Ouellette 2014), The Politics of Reality Television: Global Perspectives (Kraidy and Sender 2011), or Understanding the Global TV Format (Moran and Malbon 2012) amongst others. The primary sources of information in this chapter come from

people – producers, journalists, audiences. The original data is taken from quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews and household observations during the 1990s and onwards in Britain; the secondary data is taken from news, television content, the

internet and other public sources. Despite its popularity, there are still large gaps in empirically led audience research of reality TV. Suffice to say that empirical evidence is the backbone to understanding a history of reality television audiences around the world. For example, whilst Big Brother has established itself in the broadcast landscape of America and Britain, it is just beginning in Vietnam (VTV6, 2013-). We can only imagine what an audience study could reveal about the politics and cultural context to the first season of Big Brother in such a country. What we shall see from the audience research is that reality

TV’s successful and controversial mix of factual entertainment came at just the right moment when broadcasting shifted from a traditional model of speaking to its audience, to a niche commercial model of interacting with its audience. This more interactive model of media content in part led to its success as a genre where real people co-produced and performed entertainment for television audiences and internet users. However, this success is also one of the reasons for the genre’s creative stagnation at the moment, as real people become overproduced as entertainment. Thus, reality TV’s innovation as a genre – real people as entertainment – is also its downfall at this historical juncture as the media becomes saturated with people performing themselves.