Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Myths of the box

AA Gill – who writes restaurant and television reviews, among other things, in the Times – is always worth a read. Deliberately provocative, he is often preposterous and usually he is unreasonably cruel.

But sometimes he hits the nail on the head, as with this piece in the Sunday Times, stemming from a review of a programme about the history of ‘reality TV’:

Two of the myths of the box are that everybody watches television and that everybody wants to be on television. We know this because everyone on television tells us so. I’ll Do Anything to Get on TV (Sunday, C4) was an examination of the public on the box.

The producers had started from the present glut of reality shows and looked back to see where on earth they had all come from. The great culprit, or mould-breaker, depending on how egocentric you are, was Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life, with its jolly women’s-magazine mix of draconian consumer justice and softly ridiculing vox pops.

Tristrams (Gill’s term for trendy but ignorant TV execs - Ed) assume that television has, democratically, finally given the audience access to the magic box, but this is looking at it all the wrong way round.

Television started as wireless with pictures. Radio had always been a populist medium that used listeners to help make programmes, and the origins of the countless reality shows on TV are the radio programmes of the 1930s and 1940s. Sound broadcasting invented three types of entertainment that couldn’t be done in any other medium: the quiz show, rolling drama and the use of amateurs to talk directly to the audience. Television inherited them, and almost immediately made quizzes and soap operas the defining programmes of the new medium.

Yet it took much longer for reality shows to get to the box, simply because the technology made it too difficult for people who weren’t rehearsed to appear on television. Big Brother, Wife Swap, Faking It and Airport are possible only because of small digital cameras and microphones. Most programme innovations start off as a new bit of kit.

The other reason there are so many reality shows now is that they are cheap. The public comes cheap. All that retrospective, self-serving guff about not patronising the audience that handfuls of Tristrams came out with on this documentary was simply making a faux morality out of reality. Nothing on television has been as patronising of the contestants and the audience as Big Brother or the cattle markets of talent shows. What has changed is that a natural diffidence has been replaced by ratings-grabbing rudeness.

The great misconception about real people on television is that the professionals who present programmes aren’t real in the same sense that the audience is. But they all began as anonymous members of the public, desperate to get their face on the box. Rantzen, the grandmother of reality television, was a secretary who pushed herself forward. Her husband, Desmond Wilcox, who made the reality show Man Alive, was a tabloid hack.
There is no identifiable difference between Simon Cowell and the kids he castigates, apart from 20 years and a couple of million pounds. Davina McCall was a model-agency booker, and is no different from the Big Brother contestants.

People who appear on television, whether as a career or just for a reality moment, are all a type. They would like to believe everyone else wants to do what they do. They need their exhibitionism, embarrassment and insecurity validated by the comfort of believing that we’d all do it if we could. To a man and a woman, people on television are bungee jumpers. They would leap off a crane, tied by elastic, and many of them would do it naked. In fact, bungee jumping ought to be the first lesson on electronic journalism and media courses. If you can’t do it, don’t apply: you’re not cut out for a life in front of the camera. Most of us aren’t and wouldn’t want to be.

The other mythic truth of television — that we’re all watching all the time — is also untrue. At its height, the number of viewers watching Big Brother was smaller than of those watching most early-evening soaps. No reality TV gives the viewers more power over what they see; members of the public are yet to be allowed to be producers, directors or editors. I’ll Do Anything... was a programme that started out with a good idea, but failed to ask the right questions and didn’t think anything like hard enough. It ended up as another overlong, formulaic cutting-and-soundbite lazy doc, a genre even more insidious than reality.

That we all want to be ‘celebrities’, in the new definition of ‘anyone who is on telly for any reason’, is certainly a myth. Audiences like gawping at reality TV contestants because they’re freaks, not because they’re normal. They do it with contempt and disdain, not with admiration or envy.

These ‘100 Greatest’ things are getting out of hand too. 100 Greatest Comedy Sketches, Sitcoms, Soap Stars, TV Villains, Embarrassing Moments etc etc.

Endlessly recycling the same clips of Del Boy falling through the bar, Basil Fawlty whacking his car with a branch, kids on space hoppers and Gazza crying in Italia 90, with the same Z-list talking heads making inane and unfunny comments.

There’s one on practically every week, so soon there’ll be more than enough for ‘The 100 Greatest 100 Greatest Shows’, followed eventually by ‘The 100 Greatest 100 Greatest 100 Greatest Shows’ and so on ad infinitum with Z-list talking heads reminiscing about previous Z-list talking heads reminiscing about previous ‘100 Greatest 100 Greatest Shows’. “Oh yeah, I remember that time we voted Del Boy falling through the bar as the ‘Third Greatest Winner of the 100 Greatest Comedy Sketches’ in 2015. What where we thinking?” and so on and so on and that is the future of television.


Ben said...

According to a BBC Four website poll, the 1970's was the 'Golden Age' of television. Afterall, where would we be without Are You Being Served? But despite Mrs Slocombe's pussy, it is easy to see how much TV has changed in the last 30 years or so even if you ignore the influx of reality shows.
I recently saw some original episodes of Ask The Family with Robert Robinson. The kids on that were answering questions that'd be deemed too difficult for University Challenge. Now, of course, we have Dick & Dom's Ask the Family! I am reminded of when Alan Partridge interviewed the Commissioning Director of BBC Television. He was trying to think of some quality BBC programmes and after a list of quality ITV shows, all he could think of from the Beeb was Noel's House Party. Now that, compared to Dick & Dom, was quality.

Has TV dumbed down the masses, or is TV just fufilling a need for this particular variety of televison? If this poll for the greatest decade of TV was produced on Channel 4 (perhaps on the 100 Greatest Decades of Television in which the Tristrams realise their mistake too late) I would not be surprised if there was a different result.

So there seems to be only one conclusion. Too many turky twizzlers all round, I say.

martpol said...

An interesting sub-genere, these 100 Greatests, but I think they appeal to audiences for different reasons. Things like 100 Greatest Cartoons or Kids' TV Shows are purley about 25-50 year-olds getting dewy eyed and nostalgic. (I never tire of watching clips of quality shows like Dangermouse and Roobarb, even if the bits in between are a bit boring.)

But lists like the 100 Greatest Albums/Films are more serious. They're all about people (me, anyway) shouting at the TV in anger. It's difficult to get het up about Blue Peter being named only the 39th greatest kids' TV show; but yet another album list in which the public contrive to name The Stone Rosesas better than Abbey Road will really get some people's goat. For more of which, see my blog soon...

Anonymous said...

At least in the States, there was another bridge to reality tv shows: the daytime talk show. Maury Povich and Morton Downey and whatisname, the guy from Ohio, discovered that, in order to get on tv, some people would do just about anything and talk about absolutely anything.

David Cohen

Peter Burnet said...

Hey Brit, I keep checking in here looking for your post on "Why the Canadians hate the British." It is coming, isn't it? You wouldn't leave us out, would you? We Canadians just hate being left out.

Peter Burnet said...

Sorry, the English, of course. Why we hate the English. Boy, Brit, I'm telling you, the Aussies are pikers compared to us.

Brit said...


Hm - there's quite a few on the list before I get to the Canadians.

Haven't even done the French yet!

But if you want to have a crack at explaining why you Canadians hate us, TofE welcomes all contributions...

David said...

Peter: Like there's a difference.