Reality television shows have become a staple of the Australian media diet. Big Brother, Survivor, Australia’s Next Top Model, The Farmer Wants a Wife, Bondi Vet, RPA, Australian Idol, MasterChef Australia and The Block are just some of the shows that have dominated prime-time commercial television viewing in the early years of the 21st century.
‘Reality television’ is an umbrella term that encompasses documentary-style programs that follow people (famous and unknown); game show-based programs in which contestants survive challenges to compete for a prize; talent contests; self- and home-improvement programs; and programs that use footage shot for another purpose (for example, police work) to take viewers ‘behind the scenes’.
The genre exhibits all or some of the following characteristics: the use of ordinary people as opposed to professional actors; editing that emphasises character and multi-strand narratives; game show-style competitions and contrived locations; documentary footage, voiceovers and pieces to camera delivered by contestants; and audience involvement. In sum, reality television is a promiscuous mix of entertainment and information-based television genres.
Reality television is often portrayed as mindlessly simplistic, if not morally corrupting. It is, however, a complex genre that bears witness to the evolution of Australian television and its audiences, and is very diverse in both its format and approach to viewers. Australian reality television is also a hybrid of locally bred and imported shows.
The prominence of the genre in Australia dates back to the first series of Big Brother (2001–08), a show in which strangers are placed in a house, cut off from contact with the outside world and voted off until just one person remains, with the winner receiving a large cash prize. In Australia, housemates nominated the person they most wanted to evict each week and the audience voted. The show, devised by Dutch production company Endemol, first aired on Network Ten in 2001. It ran for 12 weeks, with eight shows a week, and averaged ratings of 1.4 million viewers.
From the outset, Big Brother attracted vitriolic criticism, typified by Australian feminist Germaine Greer’s comment that the show appealed to ‘people who like watching torture’. In 2006, a female housemate was held down by two male housemates while one rubbed his genitals in her face (known as ‘turkey slapping’). The men were evicted and the footage was not shown on Ten, although it surfaced on the internet.
Reality television has often been portrayed as an exemplar of the moral decline of modern popular culture and the degraded nature of its audiences. It is, however, a genre with a long history. The term ‘reality television’ entered popular parlance in the early 1990s as shorthand for US programs pioneered by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network, which utilised surveillance and hidden camera footage. This use of raw footage, edited to emphasise a narrative and embellished with a voiceover, reveals the genre’s roots in earlier ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary programs such as the 1974 UK series, The Family, directed by Paul Watson, which documented the lives of the Wilkins family.
Watson went on to direct the infamous Australian program Sylvania Waters (1992), which chronicled the interpersonal conflicts of the Donaher family. Both The Family and Sylvania Waters were promoted as having sociological merit—as offering viewers a better understanding of the dynamics of the lives of ‘ordinary’ families—and both traded on the fact that, while participants were aware of the presence of cameras, they quickly began to act as if the cameras weren’t there.
The first season of Big Brother in Australia was followed by a plethora of reality television shows, both local and international in origin. Locally produced and conceived reality vehicles of notable success include the Nine Network’s The Block (2003–04; 2010– ) and the Seven Network’s My Kitchen Rules (2010– ). Both programs brought the reality genre to bear on cooking and renovation lifestyle formats that were already popular with Australian audiences.
Other successful reality shows have included Network Ten’s Australian Idol (2003–09), The Biggest Loser (2006–14) and MasterChef Australia (2009– ), and FOX8’s Australia’s Next Top Model (2005– ). In 2008, following the cancellation of Big Brother, there was widespread speculation by media analysts that reality television was in decline. However, new and revived reality programs have subsequently continued to flourish in Australia—albeit with reduced audiences, reflecting a general decline in free-to-air television ratings.
In the second decade of the 21st century, reality shows remain an attractive proposition for producers and advertisers because they are cheaper to produce than drama or sit-coms, and they are ready made for product placement. To give one example, The Block—which was revived in 2010—has included product placement for companies advertising cars, whitegoods, home entertainment systems, hardware, food and toothpaste.
While reality television programs often trade on their claim to show ‘real’ life or people, they are reliant on televisual conventions to simulate naturalism, actuality and authenticity. The contrast between this claim to represent reality and the contrived and heavily edited nature of reality shows has given rise to the criticism that reality shows manipulate and dupe viewers as well as contestants. Researcher John Hartley refutes this, arguing that Big Brother audiences were more than aware of the highly artificial nature of the program while still able to ‘observe and participate in human emotions, stratagems, characters, and relationships’ in a manner that amounted to the producers sharing ‘the authorial function with the audience’.
As Toni Johnson-Woods notes, Big Brother was the first Australian show that married the medium of television with the internet to allow viewers 24-hour access to footage, the ability to vote and the potential to customise their interaction with the show. More broadly, the genre proved adept at leveraging marketing and cross-media promotion opportunities. In Graeme Turner’s words, the format can be promoted ‘as news, as a cultural phenomenon, as the launching pad for a raft of new celebrities, as a contest to be played over the phone or through SMS and, finally, as just television’.
A criticism of reality television is that the programs elevate ‘nobodies’, and in the process give them unrealistic expectations of their lives and personal worth. In their book Fame Games, Graeme Turner, Frances Bonner and David Marshall document the vast industry now devoted to manufacturing famous individuals, which spans public relations, agents, stylists, managers and media practitioners. Fame is a central commodity in late capitalist economies, but is not necessarily related to natural ability.
Viewed in this light, reality television was a logical next step in the evolution of the fame industry: it offered a vehicle for ordinary people to move to the other side of the screen and create their own televisual personas. Reality television might be understood as a bridge from the everyday world into the mediated one. As Turner observes, at a semiotic level, reality television shows us the centrality of mediated representations to our lives and our sense of selves.
REFs: J. Hartley, Television Truths (2008); T. Johnson-Woods, Big Bother (2002); K. Murphy, TV Land (2006); G. Turner, Understanding Celebrity (2004); G. Turner, F. Bonner and P.D. Marshall, Fame Games (2000).