Watching the final episode of The Hills last August really made me think. How real actually is reality television? The Hills is a TV series which premiered in 2006 and follows the personal lives of a group of young people living in Los Angeles, California. Having followed the programme from the beginning I was left in utter shock after the ending scene of the final ever episode threw everything I had believed to have happened in real life into uncertainty.
The programme was presented as an accurate film of the ‘real’ lives of participants. Was I naïve? What did producers, directors, and the whole media machine do? Everything shown was supposed to have really happened. Yet, at the end of the series the camera paned out, to reveal that the scene was being filmed on an outside set at a movie studio. I was in complete shock. What did this mean? Had everything I’d been watching been a farce? I decided to investigate further into the realities of supposedly real-life television.
The reality television phenomenon in the UK began with the now world famous Big Brother, shown on Channel 4. In case you have been living under a rock for the past 10 years and don’t know what Big Brother is, I will give you the gist: a group of people are selected to live together for about 3 months in a large house, completely isolated from the outside world but continuously watched by cameras, which is streamed onto the nation’s television sets. Simple idea – brilliant consequences.
Although the people we see on Big Brother are ‘normal’, i.e. not professional actors, there is always an element of non-reality. For example, the contestants are given tasks to do in order to win money for food each week. These tasks are specially designed by the producers to put the contestants in embarrassing situations in order to create comical or critical moments to put on camera and boost the ratings of the show. In this way, it can be argued that what we are seeing on our screens is not completely realistic. Big Brother came to a close in Summer 2010, when its final ever series ended.
The format of Big Brother paved the way for many other similar programmes. A new ITV2 reality show The Only Way Is Essex premiered earlier this week and is coined as being a British version of The Hills. It follows the lives of a group of well-off young men and women living in an affluent area of Essex. The show hit off to a good start with some of the highest ratings seen on ITV2 for a while.
People enjoy watching the lives of others. The fact that the girls and boys in this new reality programme are so mind-numbingly ‘stupid’ and ‘stinking rich’ creates some hilarious moments, and provides the perfect ingredients for a replacement of Big Brother. However, the level of reality is questionable, of course, when at the beginning of each episode a disclaimer is presented stating that: “This programme contains flash cars, big watches and false boobs. The tans you see might be fake but the people are all real although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment”.
Another reality show big in the UK at the moment is the X-Factor. Started in 2004 by music producer Simon Cowell, the programme aims to find the UK’s best hidden singing talent, taking ‘normal’ people and giving them the opportunities to fulfil their singing dreams. Last August the media revealed that the bosses of the show had been using auto-tuning for vocal enhancement on the contestants during their auditions. Surely if the contestant’s voices are being altered then they aren’t as talented as the audience is being conned into thinking they are?
Another well-known ratings booster famous within the X-Factor is the so called ‘sob story’, where the contestants go on stage and tell us of the turmoil they have faced in their lives. “I lost my dog yesterday”, and so on. These stories are renowned for increasing the popularity of the contestants; however, I personally find it quite irritating and have come to wonder about the veracity of the stories or of the feelings attached to them.
Reality television is supposed to present unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, and to document actual events, using ordinary people rather than actors. However, with producers constantly being in conflict over getting the most ratings, ‘reality’ has to be controlled and manipulated, in order to make it as captivating for the viewer as possible. In this game of catch-up, can any ‘reality TV’ ever be real?