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Changes in Society: Reality Television

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When reality television programmes first appeared a few years ago I was fairly enthusiastic about what contribution it could make to our culture. The idea behind these programmes was to film a group of people over a fairly long period of time. Some of these early programmes were extremely good. For example, one dealt with a group of young boys who had been identified as talented footballers. Another one looked at several people in their first year of teaching. Others dealt with British families who had emigrated to other countries.

These programmes were truly educational. They provided insights into real life experiences. These early programmes reminded me of the work of important sociologists and anthropologists after the last war. They also appeared to be part of the tradition that was established by programmes in the early 1960s such as Seven-Up.

This approach had tremendous potential. I was hoping for a series on young people working on aid programmes in the underdeveloped world. I felt that such a series would highlight the great sacrifices that some young people make to help others. At the same time it would show people the great amount of satisfaction this work can give. Making such a programme would have inspired others to take on similar work.

However, commercial pressures soon corrupted this new development. It was decided that more people would watch these “reality” programmes if they added some “unreality” to them. Therefore it was decided to contrive reality in order to create what television producers see as “good drama”. This is based on the belief that people like watching conflict between individuals. The more violence you could create, the more people would tune in. If you could add the possibility of nudity or sex taking place on screen, this would further increase viewing figures.

Television producers were not satisfied with the increased revenue that came from the commercial breaks. They also introduced the idea of the audience participating by voting using premium rate phone-lines. For this to be successful you needed to get people feeling passionate about the people involved in these contrived situations. One way was to get likeable people involved in the project. Another was to use people that the general public was likely to feel very hostile towards. This would also have the added advantage of other participants being aggressive towards them. This would provide conflict (drama) that producers knew was highly popular with viewers.

“Big Brother” is probably the best known of these types of reality television shows. There are plenty of others that take a similar approach. Even those that don’t invite audience participation, such as Wife Swap, use a similar formula in order to create conflict and aggression. Television producers take the view that audiences love to watch people arguing. They are also of the opinion that people like to watch participants being humiliated. It seems that people find this humorous. It reminds me of how wealthy Romans used to arrange for deformed and mentally deficient slaves to entertain them at dinner parties. There are also parallels with people in the 16th century paying to visit Bedlam Hospital in London, where they enjoyed watching the strange antics of the patients. Bedlam even hired out patients to appear as entertainers at weddings and banquets.

Should we be concerned about these developments? After all, the participants are all willing participants. There seems to be no shortage of people willing to endure public humiliation. It seems for some, becoming “famous” is what really matters. Even those who used to be “famous” are also willing to take part in these rituals in order that they can become a celebrity again.

Obviously these programmes should not be censored. However, it would be preferable that the creators of these programmes did not defend their work with the excuse that they make money. So does selling drugs but it is hardly a defence. Nor does the comments from the BBC that they also have to produce these programs because they are involved in a ratings-war. Why are they? I did not know that was mentioned in its charter?

Another defence made by the programme makers is that “it does no harm”. I disagree with that. I think it is doing terrible harm. I believe it is reinforcing this idea that people are constantly in conflict with each other. That aggression is somehow funny and entertaining. That undereducated, inarticulate people are worth listening to. These programmes encourage children to believe that is it good to endure public humiliation in order to become a celebrity.

They foster dubious values and undermines the idea of people achieving recognition for making the world a better place. One of the reasons why I was in favour of reality programmes about doctors and aid workers sacrificing their careers in order to help those in most need.

Television is a vital component of our culture. As a result it plays an important role in developing our values. When the Romans started arranging for deformed and mentally deficient slaves to entertain them at dinner parties it was a sign that their society was in serious trouble. Are we rapidly reaching that stage in the development of our own culture?

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"Don´t you ever, EVER talk that way about television" - Homer Simpson

As much as our Homer hits bullseye with that comment - meaning that he loves television - one just has to wonder what is going on in the minds of tv-executives these days. The quality of the tv programs is going downhill and fast. I should know since I happen to watch more than enough tv. And furthermore it doesn´t hurt to have an open but critical eye for quality tv-entertainment.

I have watched at least The Apprentice, The Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor, Temptation Island, The Amazing Race and if counted as reality-tv, The Weakest Link and (American) Idols. And of course many more. Now which ones of these shows would survive my cut? I´d say only The Survivor, and possibly The Apprentice. The rest of the shows are more or less Buxxxx. I can´t believe how any so called "good" person would come up with these latter kind of reality-tv concepts. Are these people truly money-hungry-rotten-to-the- core-types? Shame on you. And I haven´t even seen the worst of the worst.

Why do I not like most of these concepts? Well, I would say that is because these are 1) unethical 2) in no way constructive 3) usually do not properly show the cause and effect 4) no immediate feedback and 5) total lack of substance. The Weakest Link is certainly not cream of the crop. I mean how low can you go? This show even puts Bill O´Reilly in shame. "You´re ugly", "don´t you know anything?","are you an idiot? " and so on. If you shout back, it´s usually edited out or the host takes a break with the writers to outf**k the contestant. As if the fact of contestants knowing what to expect would make it somehow even remotely acceptable. Oh, it´s just a game. Right. When the kids at school kick the crap out of their weakest link, "that uncool guy" it´s also just a game. I can´t believe people actually watch this kind of stuff. We should call it what it is - brainwashing or indoctrination.

Then again saying that all reality-shows are worthless is like saying that there is no difference between democrats and republicans. I´m not sure if it is right to say that The Survivor celebrates life and humanity but at the very least it has many redeeming qualities in it. We for example get to see truly beautiful sceneries around the globe, genuine relationships between people from different backgrounds, but perhaps most importantly you´re part of something real and out of the rat race for a while. Proof positive of this is that I don´t care that much who wins the one million dollar prize. The Producer of the show Mark Burnett (also The Apprentice) is involved in many charities and foundations to help poor people.

I guess it is inevitable that were going have reality-programs around for a long time. They are relatively cheap to produce and that is just what the execs love. My biggest tv-hero David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Ally Mcbeal, The Practice, Boston Public) has been aggressively campaigning against the concept of reality-tv. I have to side with mr. Kelley. While he is a substance hero, most of the reality-concepts are substance zeros.

Edited by ville huoponen
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I don't personally watch these shows - much rather watch 10th reruns of Black Adder and As Time Goes By via satellite, being as old as I am - but I now work in an organisation where the office staff are very much part of our daily life, and I have come to realise how seriously they take these shows and how much their attitudes and beliefs are shaped by them. The talk at tea breaks is often a heated debate about what's happened the night before and what might or might not happen next. There's nothing wrong with vicarious experiences, most of my generation got it from books and cinema, but it depends on the values being espoused and the previous writers are right - these are not good values. It seems to be all about selfishness, greed, anger, envy, jealousy and every man for him/herself. It may be going a bit far, but I believe these shows are already making these types of values acceptable and even desirable among young people.

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I was away in Africa when reality TV first hit the screen in the UK and was horrified when I can back to find that people were far more interested in these totally contrived situations than in real life.

The reason, well, politics, Globalisation and environmental issues are all very complex and there is no easy answer. Also, its kind of difficult to 'hate' or 'love' the greenhouse effect, whereas with reality TV shows its all so obvious who is the bad guy/good guy. It makes people feel clever to be able to both understand and make predictions about these exceptionally simple minded shows. Basically its a no brainer for the end of a long tough day of work, and even if you get it wrong, does it really matter?!

I think its got to the point where we're all a bit issued out and reality TV provides an alternative outlet for our energies and emotions.

I didn't watch any Reality TV for the first year back (or any TV at all for that matter) and felt totally out of it as a result. Now I've watched American Survivor, the Apprentice, For Love or Money, something about trying to figure out whether men were gay or straight (!?!) and feel a lot more with it but certainly no more enriched for the experience.

I think what you are looking for John is a Documentary. Reality TV with brains.

So, I'll be watching Big Brother tonight, largely because the alternative is Hockey, Hockey, Hockey or Entertainment tonight. You see in Canada the TV is even worse than in the UK. Thank your lucky stars for the Beeb!


p.s. As for the comments regarding 'young people going off to Africa and doing good work' I know its well meant but its largely a waste of time with the young rich kids having a great holiday in the sun and the Africans benefitting not one jot.... but thats another story.....

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Personally I don't and have very rarely watched any of these programs. As sad as it gets sometimes, I'd still rather watch my own life. TV for me is for entertainment in the form of dramatic productions, music tv and news/documentaries and of course olympics and world cups, however I do understand why many people get something from reality tv programmes. I believe a lot of people these days are spiritually dead, or don't even entertain the idea of having a soul. I believe this has a knock-on effect on the way in which they cope with the downsides and traumas of their own life - They project themselves deeply into the traumas suffered by reality tv contestants. In addition to the benefit of watching others (usually voluntarily) suffering without having to yourself; it also fills your days with concern and interest for a new group of apparently exciting people. I have nothing against these programmes, despite the values they may seem to promote (they are not the first to promote and encourage negative behaviour); I just choose to change the channel. Maybe I'm boring, but a group of real people hanging around, playing in a confined space just does not do anything for me.

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Reccomended reading (if you can leave the telly off for awhile!)

I found this book to be extremely informative and useful; the arguments presented are sound and based in psychological principles that most people can understand.

The name of the book is:


ISBN 0-688-03274-5 hdcvr

ISBN 0-688-08374-2 pbk

(75 copies available through Amazon.com)

The most important concept that I took away from this book is that..."NOTHING on television is 'REAL' and/or happening 'NOW'..."

There are time delays, editing, structuring (in keeping with the 'enhancing the drama' theme with today's so-called "reality shows") etc. If you are truly interested in the way that television "works", please read this book - I read it over 20 years ago, and I believe that it STILL guides MY TV viewing habits...at least I am an "informed consumer" of televesion's "product"...

I am the first person to admit that I am a product of the 'communication' age - radio, tv, etc. and I AM a "movie-holic" - but I acknowledge that these aren't 'real' by any stretch of the imagination...even documentaries and historical events get "spin" - one only has to google up "WTC", "9/11", "planes" and "Pentagon Strike", etc to find that - even as we watched it happen, we didn't see the REAL thing.


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  • 2 weeks later...

I thought people might be interested in the history of reality shows. The story begins during the Second World War. Pegeen Fitzgerald had her own radio show on WOR in New York. She was popular figure in America and was much missed when she became very ill in 1942. When she was convalescing, her producer had the idea of broadcasting the show from her home. Her husband, Edward Fitzgerald, a journalist, joined her, and they recorded the couple exchange small talk over breakfast. The programme was a great success. The main reason was that it reminded women whose husbands were serving overseas what family life was like. Pegeen’s own show was dropped and the breakfast show, The Fitzgeralds, was broadcast daily. This was very different from today’s breakfast shows. It just consisted of this man and woman talking in the same way as they would if they were on their own. In fact it was not unlike Big Brother and other such reality programmes.

The programme was just a success that the Fitzgeralds asked for more money. WOR refused and so they went to a rival station, WJZ. WOR now looked for a replacement. They decided this time they would find a couple with more interesting things to say. They selected Dorothy Kilgallen’s, America’s leading gossip columnist. Her husband, theatre producer, Richard Kollmar, was also known for his entertaining stories. They also had the advantage of having three children and a butler. The programme went out live: Monday to Saturday (8.15 to 8.55 a.m.) and Sunday (11.30 to 12.00).

Over the years the programme was gradually commercialised. Companies paid to have their products mentioned over breakfast (“What lovely orange juice” “Yes, it’s Juicy Jem”). Theatre producers paid to have their plays discussed over breakfast. Films and books were also promoted by the hosts.

In the 1950s Richard Kollmar developed a serious drink problem. This resulted in him slurring his words and saying some silly things over breakfast. However, this made it even more popular. By this time the public was bored by normal conversation. Now they wanted drama. The programme remained a popular success until Dorothy Kilgallen became seriously ill in 1964 and it had to be taken off the air.

It is surprising that it took television so long to realise the potential of the “reality show”.

Dorothy Kilgallen was murdered in 1965 as a result of her finding out the truth about the Kennedy assassination. Richard Kollmar never got over the incident and committed suicide in 1971.

You can find out more about Dorothy Kilgallen and Richard Kollmar at:



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As for the comments regarding 'young people going off to Africa and doing good work' I know its well meant but its largely a waste of time with the young rich kids having a great holiday in the sun and the Africans benefitting not one jot.... but thats another story.....

My original point was that reality television could be used to motivate young people to make sacrifices in order to help other people.

When John F Kennedy was elected to office he challenged the people of the United States with the statement: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country."

Kennedy also wanted the young people of the country to help the undeveloped world and announced the establishment of the Peace Corps. This a scheme that intended to send 10,000 young people to serve in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Kennedy argued that this "practical, inexpensive, person-to-person program will plant trust, good will and a capacity for self-help" in the underdeveloped world.

I thought this was a great initiative and I know other countries have brought in similar schemes. Although I am sure it is true when Rowena says that some “with the young rich kids having a great holiday in the sun and the Africans benefitting not one jot."

However, others, like young doctors, must provide a lot of useful help. More importantly, it gives them an idea of what it is like to be someone living in the underdeveloped world. Surely, this must change the way they see the world. Unless they are devoid of all empathy, the experience must make them more compassionate human beings.

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In response to John, and I know this is going off topic a lot, on my return from Rwanda I watched a documentary about a bunch of young farmers going to Rwanda to build a goat shed. This task, which would require one man and a pile of wood by normal standards seemed to require 8, yes 8, young farmers and a lot of very expensive materials which would no doubt be stolen within the week. The women were wearing tiny shorts which are totally culturally inappropriate and not one of them spoke French or Swahili. Meanwhile some healthy young african men looked on, sat on their arses and no doubt thought, "what a bunch of stupid white people"!

There are people going off to Developing countries doing good work. Doctors without borders. Lawyers without borders, VSO and Peace Corps (though there is a healthy rivalry between the two programmes!). There are also lots of profit making schemes where you fundraise to send yourself and end up building walls and sheds and other tasks an African would love to be paid to do. This of course only costs your plane fare, housing, food, integration costs etc etc etc...as opposed to about five dollars if you paid an African and it would provide him with money to feed his family.

Sadly most development work of this nature benefits the 'benefactors' far more than the recipients and also gives them a false idea of life in developing countries. They go home and fund raise to fling more money at a complex situation, feel pity for their African colleagues and invariably the donated money/goods get stolen.

People don't value things which are free.

People in developing countries need our respect not our pity, compassion or any other soft fluffy words of that nature.

It is of course extremely difficult to give young people an honest view of developing countries. When they are very young they have very little to contribute in the way of skills, when they are older and possess the skills maybe they don't feel like donating them.

Both PeaceCorps and VSO were set up to benefit British and American kids. Its important to remember that. PeaceCorps vols are treated like heros when in fact it is the people they help who are the heros. The Peace Corps vols get to go home at the end of their experience. They get paid. They get free medical care. They have holidays. They have a nice enlightening experience. The people they work with are still there in 5, 10, 50 years time and no-one tells them what a great job they are doing.

Thankfully VSO is moving awayfrom sending English teachers and is progressing to more highly skilled volunteers. Harder to get but far more valuable in their host countries. When I went to Rwanda we were all teachers. This year they are business managers and Psychiatrists.

Of course its nice if the volunteers benefit from the experience. Nice. Buts its much more important that the people they work with actually get something back from it. Something that lasts.

I have been trying to find funding to support a project whereby Rwandese students between high school and university (they have to wait 6 months to a year to get their results back) volunteer in their local community. The idea stems from watching a bunch of white kids playing frisby with street kids whilst the Rwandese looked on with contempt. It is far more important, and less expensive for the Rwandese to look out for each other. It breaks down social barriers and builds a less violent country, and both the benefactors and the volunteers are African. Money well spent you might think. Try getting funding for it! There are numerous places that you apply for funds to send a Canadian, Brit, Australian, American off for an 'adventure holiday' but try to do the same thing NOT involving white kids and you hit a brick wall.

Development aid is all tied and the benefactors are always ultimately white.


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  • 2 months later...

There is a strange phenomenon. Britain is getting older. In fact, the population is older now than it has been for over a century. Yet at the same time our culture has never been more adolescent. Young people may be a dwindling minority, but they exercise an extraordinarily powerful influence on the cultural stage, from television and newspapers to film and art.

The turning point, of course, was the 1960s. Until then, young people were largely ignored in a culture that was determinedly and stiflingly middle aged. A generation, who were brought up in very different conditions from those of their parents, rebelled in a way that remains unprecedented in western society. It is not difficult to explain - or understand - the 60s. The young were a product of the long postwar boom, not war and unemployment, and the baby boom lent them exceptional demographic weight. What is far more difficult to comprehend is why our culture, in the decades since, has become progressively more infantile. It is as if the 60s gave birth to a new dynamic, which made young people the dominant and permanent subjects of our culture.

It started with the rebirth of pop music as a youth genre, but the concerns and attitudes of the young generation have since permeated areas that were never self-avowedly adolescent. One only has to think of Britart, for example, whose motif has been the desire to shock, or film, whose preoccupation with violence as spectacle is driven by the appetite of the young, to see how powerful these adolescent values have become. It is not that they are simply negative or offer nothing: on the contrary, there is much to be admired in their energy, scepticism and commitment to innovation. But they are also characterised by transience and shallowness, a desire to shock for shock's sake, and a belief that only the present is of value. A culture that succumbs to adolescence is a culture that is drained of meaning and experience, not to mention history and profundity.

Nor is this obeisance to adolescence simply a characteristic of the arts. On the contrary, it shapes the character of much mainstream culture. Take newspapers, for example. The broadsheets, as we used to describe them, have become increasingly concerned with, and expressive of, the concerns of a younger audience: the growth of "personal experience" and lifestyle columns, the growing preoccupation with the personal rather than the political, the retreat from the serious. This is reflected in the falling age of journalists: there is less room, and declining respect for, figures of authority and expertise. The currency of knowledge and experience is steadily depreciating.

The same adolescent tendency can be seen in television - with brass knobs on. A major moment in this process was the Big Breakfast, which brought adolescence, nay infantilism, to what had been a rather conventional television genre, namely breakfast time. The Big Breakfast was witty and irreverent. It was also devoid of any substance, childish with not a child in sight, the ultimate in inanity. It signalled the march of infantilism into the citadels of mainstream television. Its icon, Chris Evans, the television face of the new infantilism - which was soon to be joined at the hip to a growing addiction with celebrity - has since been devoured by the process that he helped create, but adolescent television has since come to dominate viewing figures, schedules and budgets. Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! are testament to its hegemony in the popular consciousness. The tabloids feed off these programmes, their agenda driven by adolescent television. And, as in newspapers, the average age of television controllers, editors, directors and producers keeps falling, with grey hairs less and less in evidence at a time when they are becoming evermore visible in society at large.


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Here are some letters about Martin Jacques' article.

Martin Jacques gives a good description of the contemporary infantalisation of culture. But his explanation - that "we" have had 50 years without economic depression or direct experience of war and have therefore "opted for the quiet life" - is wrong: the last three decades have been ones of economic and social crisis even in the rich countries, and consequent great personal anguish for many people.

I would suggest two more plausible explanations. First, the increasing commoditisation of social life, and the consequent rise of advertising and publicity as the key culture, tend to promote knowledge as soundbite, enjoyment as sensation, and repute as celebrity - all characteristics of adolescent culture. Second, neoliberalism since the 1970s has set out to disempower and depoliticise the general population, the better to empower business. Discipline, deskilling and fear at work have devalued experience and skill - and hence age; you survive and prosper through opportunism, rather than wisdom.

Jamie Gough Division of geography, Northumbria University

The cult of youth began in the 60s because capitalism sniffed a new and lucrative market - affluent youth. It targeted this market by emphasising and exacerbating the divisions between the young and old, turning youth into a cult. This has become a self-perpetuating transformation, but, interestingly, only in the Anglo-Saxon world. In most other countries there is still a healthy interaction between the generations.

In Britain, the cult of youth has led to a fractured dialogue between the generations, an end of the communicating of vital experience and wisdom from one generation to the next. In this country, the manufactured conflict between youth and age has overshadowed the former class conflicts. This has led to a gross impoverishment for society, a loss of shared values, social stability and cohesion. Because young people are seen merely as a market and treated as consumers only, a shallow and banal mass culture has been promoted. Every society needs a rebellious, innovative and creative youth, but divorced from the experience and wisdom of older generations, those qualities can be wasted.

John Green, London

Martin Jacques's assertions are flawed in two crucial ways. First, he seems to be bemoaning an upsurge in shallowness and youthfulness across our socio-political and cultural landscape, while describing the regime it is apparently superseding as a "suffocating hierarchy of age and seniority". So which does he prefer?

Second, he concludes that genuine profundity of thought within politics and culture can only be genuinely achieved through fundamental mass human suffering. Well, if that is the price we must pay to return to a more "serious" society, then give me more of the Big Breakfast.

Manny Lee, Manchester

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