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Voyeurism, sexism and non-celebrity: reality TV eats itself

Martin Fletcher

6th June 2005

Summer is upon us, and you can hardly switch on the TV without catching a reality show. Big Brother has returned for its sixth series, and its clones are spreading like weeds. And it wouldn’t be a reality summer without the press declaring “a new low in TV”. Big Brother had only been on air two days before the tabloids proclaimed this series “the sleaziest yet”, on fairly scant evidence. And, as always, we are treated to the why-oh-why commentators wagging their fingers and arguing that this represents dumbing down, the collapse of public morality and the corruption of a popular culture that you sense they didn’t think much of in the first place.

Many of the critics of modern culture are of course reactionaries in the literal sense. The preposterous Peter Hitchens springs to mind. Hitchens is much given to arguing that all the ills of modern society are the fault of the 1960s and specifically Harold Macmillan, Roy Jenkins and the Beatles. Recently he has begun to push the period of society’s degeneration back to the 1945 Labour government, which raises the intriguing prospect that Hitchens will end up like the fogies in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who believed that coming down from the trees was a mistake. Hitchens’ writings, particularly his gloriously bonkers book The Abolition of Britain, are redolent of a nostalgia for a mythical golden age when there was no crime to speak of as hanging and flogging kept the streets safe, all children got a good classical education, women stayed at home, the gays were still firmly in the closet, the blacks hadn’t got off the boat yet, Elvis had not been invented and deference and respect were all around. Then some youngsters started chewing gum, listening to John Lennon and drinking American soda pop instead of dandelion and burdock, and it all went to hell on a bicycle.

This is a far cry from the stuff Hitchens was writing in Socialist Worker thirty years ago, and the man himself acknowledges that he has the zeal of a convert. Here is a man who wanted to change society, and when society did begin to change he recoiled from the consequences, his fundamentally conservative personality asserted itself, and he set about trying to turn back the clock. Take gay rights – Hitchens now argues that he thought it was wrong for gays to be legally persecuted, but he also thought that once the gays were legal they would go on being “discreet” (i.e. closeted) and not openly celebrate their sexuality. As Tom Robinson put it in Glad To Be Gay, “The buggers are legal now – what more are they after?” Therefore, on Planet Hitchens, it turns out that decriminalisation was a mistake.

What the cultural conservatives fail to realise is that the old culture of repression, hypocrisy and deference is by and large gone; it is not coming back; and it is good that it is gone. Where they have a point, and what gives their argument its force, is that there has been a coarsening of the public culture, and much of it is traceable to the youth revolt of the 1960s. But it has not been a result of the youth revolt itself – the shattering of old taboos was necessary – but its failure to follow up its initial success. An old and decayed culture was swept away, while a new and better one was not built. A comparison can be drawn with binge drinking, which has become part of the culture of Britain (and Scandinavia, as it happens) due to absurdly restrictive opening hours which encouraged drinkers to consume as much as possible in a short space of time. The Blair government’s reform of the licensing laws will not however lead in the short term to a more civilised drinking culture, but to an explosion in binge drinking.

The same could be said about the media. TV, films, literature are now far freer in what they can depict than twenty or thirty years ago. The broadcast media in particular are much less restricted than they used to be, although this reflects more what is acceptable in the media than what is acceptable in society. In 1976 there was outrage from the chattering classes at the Sex Pistols saying “fuck” on TV, but the likes of Mary Whitehouse, who did not frequent working men’s clubs, paid scant attention to the sort of things “blue” comedians were getting away with on stage, preferring to target long-haired leftwing artists who were really trying to produce work of social significance. In fact, in those areas where the media are now more restrictive – racism, to take the most obvious example – the conservatives are quick to denounce restrictions as “political correctness”. This says more about their political agenda than it does about the culture they hope to critique.

Much of this controversy relates to sex, an issue that seems to bring all sorts of political issues to the fore. Twenty years ago the presence of an openly gay man on TV was held to have an inevitably corrupting effect on the young, although there were lots and lots of closeted gays. Sun TV critic Garry Bushell waged a virulent campaign to keep gay comedian Julian Clary off TV (although he continues to champion the extraordinarily foul-mouthed, racist and sexist comedian Jim Davidson as a “family entertainer”). The presence of numerous out gays (but very few out lesbians) in the media today is a welcome sign of a more tolerant society.

The treatment of women is more complicated. It used to be a comedy staple to see middle-aged men (Sid James, Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill) leering over young women’s breasts, and the fact that the women weren’t allowed to be nude didn’t make it any less sexist. That sort of thing has pretty much disappeared from the comedy scene (except for the odd throwback like Jim Davidson), but sexploitation continues to flourish in different forms. The Marxist explanation for this is that the social preconditions for women’s oppression persist, and alienated sexuality is part and parcel of capitalist society. Another relevant factor is that more openness about sex and the breaking of old taboos are a precondition for the ending of alienated sexuality, but are not sufficient for it. Nor has the culture been helped by the feminist movement’s decay into dour puritanism and an “all men are bastards” attitude.

Rather than society’s standards going into decline, it would be more accurate to say that the decline of the old, repressive standards led to a vacuum in public morality. Nature of course abhors a vacuum, and it would inevitably be filled by something. Attitudes to sexuality illustrate this: the old, repressive codes were replaced not by a culture based on mutual respect but by a deluge of prurience. It is debatable whether society has been crudified – certainly the utopia conjured up by Peter Hitchens never existed – but it seems incontestable that, in the modern media, there has been an increasing “anything goes” culture. The trailblazers in this process are the Murdoch tabloids, which have developed a fine line in promoting prurience while decrying it at the same time.

Are TV standards declining?

There is plenty of evidence to show that this crudification is reflected on TV. Exhibit A would have to be ITV’s replacement of its venerable old warhorse Blind Date with the ghastly Elimidate, a show so awful it got cancelled after one series by ITV network execs, who have proven time and again their willingness to broadcast any old crap. Whereas Blind Date was presented by 1960s warbler Cilla Black, Elimidate was fronted (pun intended) by top-heavy pop starlet Kerry Katona, who was costumed in extremely skimpy outfits and whose gargantuan breasts were heavily promoted as the show’s main attractions. In a further effort to spice things up, the show was broadcast from exotic locations rather than a cheesy studio set, and a Weakest Link element of sadism was introduced with contestants eliminating the suitors they didn’t like rather than picking one they clicked with. Finally and most importantly, the groan-inducing innuendo of Blind Date was out, and instead we had a show consisting mainly of gormless chavs trying to feel each other up. The contestants were so unlikeable there was nobody for an audience to identify with, and it was no surprise that the show died on its arse.

Exhibit B is the appalling Bo Selecta. Many of the problems with TV comedy are generational – it would be folly, with sexual taboos being swept away, to expect a return to the old nudge-and-wink innuendo culture that grew up to get around restrictions that don’t exist any more. And, while crusading satire is not without its internal difficulties – far too many “alternative comedians” in the 1980s thought insulting Thatcher could substitute for a lack of imagination – the political atmosphere has been against it for years now. But it’s worth remembering what an artist can accomplish, especially with some commitment. One thinks of the late Dave Allen, whose breaking of taboos around sex, death and religion stemmed from his anti-clerical politics, and had all the more force for it; he also knew how to use profanity, swearing to add emphasis to a punchline rather than blunting its impact through overuse. It comes down to an issue of style and substance – ideally there should be both, but in entertainment style can often make up for a lack of substance. Antoine de Caunes’s Eurotrash is extremely crude, but also often very funny. What distresses about Bo Selecta is not so much its crudity as its witlessness – the idea that minor celebrities effing and blinding is groundbreaking satire. If we are going to have crudity, it would help to have it with a bit of panache.

I could go on at considerable length. C4’s So Graham Norton comes to mind as the most successful of British TV’s innumerable attempts to clone David Letterman, by doing something American network TV has never dared – having an openly gay talk show host. But, while Norton is a gifted comic writer, his performances will stick in the mind mainly for his screeching campery, his over-reliance on smut and his misogyny, exemplified by his obsessive references (always with an expression of disgust) to female genitalia. While criticism of Norton has often smacked of the homophobia that almost destroyed Julian Clary’s career, a fair amount of it has been at least arguable.

What is more surprising is that so much of the conservatives’ bile has been directed at reality TV, which surely inverts their argument about cause and effect. After all, reality shows don’t seek to provoke extreme behaviour but to show the unvarnished behaviour of people who aren’t that different from the audience. A large factor is undoubtedly snobbery, as conservative suburbanites find the portrayal of belching, farting, crotch-scratching plebs too awful to contemplate. The argument that they make crude behaviour acceptable to innocent children will come as news to anyone who has ever had to share a bus with a large posse of schoolkids. If anything, reality show contestants have an incentive to tone down their behaviour, as anything too far out may alienate the viewers who decide their fate. The reality boom itself, and the forces involved in it, tell us far more about the development of popular culture than a circular argument about whether public discourse is corrupted by a bit of swearing or nudity on a TV show.

Barris, Warhol and Bazalgette

Where does modern reality TV come from? It has little in common with the worthy fly-on-the-wall documentaries of the 1970s – rather, like a lot of bad things on TV, it owes a great deal to Chuck Barris. Barris, a televisual genius who never pretended to be making anything other than dumb entertainment, was a great exponent of giving the masses what they want. He specialised in game shows, inventing The Dating Game (Britain’s Blind Date) and The Newlywed Game (Britain’s Mr And Mrs). He is probably best remembered today for creating The Gong Show, a talent show for the talentless, with an occasional good act thrown in for variety (readers will probably think immediately of the early rounds of Pop Idol). Just as the modern PC emerged from the semiconductor industry – it is not a shrunken mainframe but a big chip – so the modern reality show is not the bastardised documentary it might appear at first sight, but rather a mutant strain of game show, where we follow the contestants through their ups and downs, ending in a winner being crowned and getting a prize.

Barris also realised that the future of TV belonged not to untouchable stars – they had their home in Hollywood – but to ordinary people. Viewers wanted somebody they could identify with rather than put on a pedestal. Your neighbour appeared on a Barris show yesterday, it could be you next week. And TV-literate contestants – they were viewers themselves, after all – would be motivated by the sheer fact of appearing on TV, with the prize an added bonus if you won. In this sense, Barris was fulfilling in trash culture the democratic “15 minutes of fame” prophesied by Andy Warhol. I don’t know if Warhol watched The Gong Show, but he would have understood it instantly. But why are reality shows exploding now, and in this form?

The boom in reality programming is partly explained in a fascinating new book by Peter Bazalgette, the man who brought us Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Big Brother. (Peter Bazalgette, Billion Dollar Game, Time Warner Books, 2005.) Bazalgette explains the success of his programming in terms of corporate synergy. Millionaire is an early example – with contestants paying to apply through premium rate phone lines, the applications alone generated a substantial prize fund, and the big prizes were in turn an incentive to apply. The format itself is just a souped-up version of Hughie Greene’s Double Your Money, but the co-ordinated use of media was revolutionary. Big Brother, tying together TV, streamed internet coverage, and interactive voting, took the concept to a whole new level. Despite the worthy rhetoric that accompanied the launch of Big Brother, it had much more to do with corporate synergy than a psychological study of human behaviour. Another prime example of synergy is Pop Idol, fronted by music executive Simon Cowell (a berk who knows everything about selling music and nothing about why people love it), which does away with the need for the music industry to scout for new talent by having mass televised auditions.

Another factor, closely tied to the strategy of corporate synergy, is the boom in celebrity gossip outlets. The tabloid newspapers have now been supplemented by magazines like Heat and Closer, which eschew the Hello format (obscure Spanish aristocrat shows us around his villa) in favour of salacious gossip. The increase in gossip outlets dovetails perfectly with reality TV manufacturing new celebrities on a regular basis. Pick up an issue of Heat and you will see how it is possible to fill a hefty magazine every week with huge amounts of pseudo-news about pseudo-celebs – it is almost like entering a parallel universe of virtual showbiz. Heat’s impressive sales show that there is an enormous, and heavily female, audience out there for “candid” photos of Darren Day eating a sandwich or some soap actress with sweaty armpits. In fact Heat’s biggest selling cover last year was “Jade’s amazing new look”, about a 2002 Big Brother contestant – who didn’t even win that year – changing her hairstyle. This issue sold 600,000 copies.

Island of fools

While TV’s reality glut has produced some decent entertainment, it has also spawned some truly hideous duds. ITV have had particularly bad luck in the last few months. First they gave us the disastrous Celebrity Wrestling, which suffered hugely from being put up against the BBC’s revival of Doctor Who. It also suffered from taking not very famous people, putting them in costume and giving them stage names. As a result of its ratings debacle Celebrity Wrestling has been exiled to the darkest backwaters of the schedules. (Although I fully expect ITV to up the ante next year with Celebrity Mud Wrestling.) Then they put on Celebrity Love Island (CLI), a £15 million train wreck of a show which suggests a complete lack of thought, discrimination or common sense from ITV bosses. The Daily Mirror’s acerbic critic Jim Shelley has described it as the worst programme ever made, although I’m not sure that it beats Elimidate.

Nonetheless, CLI could almost be used as a textbook example of how not to make a reality show. One obvious problem is with the celebrities themselves. Almost by definition, celebs who sign on for reality shows are not terribly busy, so the burgeoning trend in celeb reality shows has had to draw heavily on those whose careers are in decline if not over, and increasingly on people who are notorious mainly for their participation in previous reality shows or tabloid scandals. While CLI has the requisite quota of retired footballers, faded soap actors and presenters between jobs, it also has an unusually high number of contestants from the latter category.

So we have one Fran Cosgrave, who appears to be the proprietor of a nightclub frequented by celebrities, which I suppose makes him a celebrity by proxy. This is his second reality show, begging the philosophical question of whether Mr Cosgrave ceases to exist when he isn’t on a reality show. Then there is Callum Best, the son of legendary footballer and alcoholic George Best. Young Mr Best is billed as a model, but his main activities seem to be trading on his father’s name and falling out of nightclubs, possibly even Mr Cosgrave’s nightclub. And we also have Rebecca Loos, whose claim to fame is that she shagged a footballer and sold her story to the tabloids. Ms Loos is also on her second reality show, having appeared on The Farm last year.

The one castaway who has excited most attention is Abi Titmuss. Ms Titmuss is the former partner of a former daytime TV host, and gained some notoriety when a video of her having sex was broadcast on the internet. Ms Titmuss, a hospital nurse by profession, showed remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and parlayed her notoriety into a modelling career, becoming a firm favourite of the lad mags. If cultural conservatives are to be believed, Ms Titmuss’s celebrity is the death of civilisation. It isn’t actually all that novel – she could easily be compared to 1960s soft porn model Margaret Nolan, who went on to a successful film and TV career. In itself, her celebrity only proves the hardly surprising point that an attractive blonde with a big chest will never be short of work on British TV – and, being quite articulate and having a sparky persona, she is more watchable than many “legitimate” celebs. More interesting is the way both the show and, much more virulently, female critics and commentators have relentlessly ridiculed Ms Titmuss about her weight, although few people in the real world would think her fat. And they wonder why teenage girls have eating disorders.

Strike two against the show is its choice of presenters. The male half of the presenting duo is the charmless Patrick Kielty, whose non-stop mugging cannot disguise the haunted look of a man who sees his career vanishing down the dunny. His female counterpart is the statuesque former underwear model Kelly Brook. As anyone who remembers her disastrous stint on the Big Breakfast in the late 1990s can testify, Ms Brook has serious trouble reading an autocue – incredibly, her presenting skills actually seem to have got worse over time. Her real skill is looking spectacular in a bikini, which is presumably why ITV sent her to Fiji in the first place. Unfortunately for ITV, Ms Brook is now resident in Hollywood, suffers delusions of being a serious actress, and has adamantly refused to wear a bikini, preferring to appear in swishy Rita Hayworth dresses. Apparently she feels that stripping on TV would harm her credibility, although she continues to appear undressed in lad mags on a monthly basis.

But the Z-list celebrities and duff presenters wouldn’t matter so much if there was anything entertaining going on. The main problem with CLI is simply that it is stupefyingly boring. It breaks completely with the Big Brother template of putting contestants in a mildly uncomfortable environment and giving them something to do, thus provoking personality clashes which make the show interesting. The CLI castaways are in a luxury resort and are waited on hand and foot. ITV execs seem to have hoped that the mix of sun, booze and sheer boredom would inevitably lead to nookie, and nookie would generate ratings as night follows day. But the celebs have been given no incentive to get off their sun loungers, and by and large haven’t done so. The edited highlights show is bad enough, but the live stream shown through the night on ITV2 is akin to a near death experience. Despite plenty of coverage – the Sun, when running an editorial on how crap CLI was, devoted three pages to it the same day – the show has generated nothing to spark the public’s interest, has failed to connect with its target audience of Heat woman and Nuts man, and has been a ratings disaster virtually from the start.

In fact CLI is so bad that Five’s The Farm – universally derided as the nadir of reality TV last year – actually looked reasonably professional this year. The celebs were a mixture of the vaguely familiar but nearly forgotten (Lionel Blair, Keith Harris and his glove puppet Orville, and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, who seemed to think the big green talking duck on Harris’s arm was real) and the deeply obscure (a fireman who slept with a soap actress and sold his story to the News of the World, and who found it hilariously difficult to explain who he was). Into this motley crew strode the almost circular figure of veteran US porn actor Ron Jeremy. Worryingly, everybody knew exactly who Ron was; terrifyingly, he instantly established himself as by far the most articulate and conservative person there. Truth be told, The Farm was still crap, but it was helped enormously by competing with CLI and displaying a basic level of competence which is apparently beyond ITV. There was enough going on to watch half an hour without falling asleep, and that was enough to be going on with.

And now we have the return of Big Brother. At first glance, this year’s housemates are an unprepossessing bunch – the women, as the Daily Mirror pointed out, seem to have been chosen on the basis of their bra size rather than their personalities; the gays are uniformly camp; and there is a medallion man to appeal to the ladies, a “geezer” to represent the lad mag demographic, and a strange little bloke called Science who thinks he represents the brothers in the hood. Science does have the merit of being unintentionally funny as he shouts continually that nobody understands what it’s like in the ghetto (despite his Spike Lee demeanour, he comes from Leeds). More depressing is that few of them seem to have actual jobs, most describing themselves as student slash dancer, student slash model or student slash musician. It isn’t exactly aspirational, but it could be argued that this demonstrates the phenomenon of Gen-X downward mobility. Nevertheless Big Brother can be expected to be a huge hit as it always is. C4 and Endemol are experienced enough to know how the format works, and how best to tap into the public’s endless appetite for voyeurism. Big Brother remains the daddy of reality TV, and nobody should forget it.

It appears that we are now in a period of TV eating itself. The rash of list shows, nostalgia shows and revivals filling the airwaves suggest that the medium is fast approaching the point of total format exhaustion. Add a music scene with Elvis and Tony Christie at the top of the charts, and the consumer of pop culture begins to feel that he has entered retro hell. The synergy of reality programming and gossip publishing only puts the icing on the cake.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Very little, it appears. Recently former tabloid editor Piers Morgan – a man who has contributed to this situation in no small measure – wrote a punchy article in the Daily Mail proclaiming the flop of Celebrity Love Island as the end of the “cult of non-celebrity”. Sadly, Morgan is probably wrong. CLI failed because of incompetence in its production. There is no evidence that viewers are tiring of the reality format and its surrounding media circus. Conceptually speaking, CLI is ideal programming for a nation of Sun readers with the Crazy Frog on their mobiles.



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