PRIME TIME: THE DEATH OF REALITY TV?

Published May 19, 2024
A.J. Odudu and Will Best present Big Brother on ITV | ITV
A.J. Odudu and Will Best present Big Brother on ITV | ITV

The explosion of reality TV on to our television screens at the end of the last millennium is one of the major global phenomena in recent media history.

Purporting to show people in unscripted, “real life” situations, this genre of programming took the world by storm and drew in audiences in their millions, much to the delight of television executives. But recent viewing figures suggest the format may have had its day, and is certainly no longer the success story it once was.

The roots of reality TV in the UK can be traced back to the BBC’s landmark 1974 documentary series The Family, which was one of the first fly-on-the-wall documentaries on British television.

But it was at the turn of the millennium, amid increased competition between broadcasters and audiences becoming fragmented between the growing number of content providers, that reality television really took off.

With reality TV in the UK almost dead, The Traitors offers a last glimmer of hope

So-called “docusoaps”, such as the BBC’s Airport and Driving School in the late 1990s, combined elements of the observational documentary with soap opera-like narratives. These led to further programmes which focused on “real” or “normal” people. And then into this mix came US-style confessional talk shows and televised social experiments, such as Channel 4’s Big Brother.

Twenty years on, the golden age of reality TV may be over, as audiences dwindle. ITV’s decision to cancel Survivor in 2022 after just two seasons, citing poor ratings and audience indifference, exemplifies this decline. The show was picked up by the BBC in 2023 where, once again, it faces the axe due to dismal audiences.

Similarly, one of ITV’s flagship shows, Love Island, has seen a dramatic drop in viewership. The programme’s 2023 launch episode attracted just 1.3 million viewers — 2 million less than for the launch of the 2019 series.

Why the decline?

There are several possible reasons why the popularity of reality television is waning. For one thing, the global media landscape has changed considerably since the turn of the century, and continues to do so.

Those wanting a dose of reality (or maybe mediated reality) now have a range of platforms from which to choose. Social media platforms and podcasts now provide a similar window on the lives of “real people.”

Another factor is that audiences have become more media literate in recent years. There is greater awareness that shows in this genre are, in many cases, scripted and constructed, often with certain narratives created by means of editing.

Furthermore, viewers have become more aware of the effect these reality TV series can have on some participants. In May 2019, for example, ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show was taken off the air after one of its guests subsequently took their own life.

The show, which allowed guests to discuss personal and relationship problems openly, often used lie detector tests and paternity tests as programme features. Such was the concern after the guest’s death that the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport launched an inquiry.

The controversy surrounding some of these shows continues long after their airing. A new Channel 4 documentary series about a controversial reality show from 2004 has drawn criticism from several commentators in the press.

Miriam: Death of a Reality Star documents the Sky series There’s Something About Miriam, in which six men attempted to capture the attention of Miriam Rivera, a 21-year-old Mexican model who, unbeknown to them, was transgender.

The new documentary has been accused of exploiting the story for shock value, while failing to offer a balanced perspective or new information about the tragic events surrounding the show’s star.

There have been longstanding concerns about how some reality TV shows can affect both their cast and crew. Research has highlighted long hours, bullying and harassment as just some of the problems they may face.

The Traitors

One series, however, has bucked this reality TV trend. The BBC’s The Traitors has aired for two seasons with a third having been commissioned. The audience for the second season’s finale peaked at 6.9 million, making it the most-watched show on British television in the week to January 28, 2024.

So, how do we explain the success of The Traitors in light of the overall decline in reality TV’s popularity?

One reason may be the way the participants are selected. A 2023 article in GQ magazine explained it like this: “The cast were ‘normal’ people of all ages and body types. Not influencers or gym-goers primed for fame, but the kind of people who might know your mum from Zumba class, or work at the checkout in your local supermarket.”

Another reason may be that British audiences are fascinated by the duplicity and deception that runs through The Traitors. Many of us engage with the “hyper-real” nature of the show. As sociologist Danielle Lindemann argues: “It’s like our own lives but more extreme — a funhouse where everything is accentuated. We all know liars in our lives, but probably not to this extreme.”

To its credit, reality TV has adapted and evolved to a multi-channel, multi-provider environment. Big Brother, for example, moved from Channel 4 to Channel 5 in 2011 and then found a new home on ITV1 in 2023, with a companion discussion show on ITV2.

So, using further technological advances could be one way to address the fall in the genre’s popularity.

Virtual and augmented reality experiences could, for example, offer audiences the chance to influence the outcome of programmes beyond the types of engagement that we see at the moment, such as voting by text or online.

It’s interesting to contemplate how much more daring producers may become — whether in terms of format, contestants or content — were they to take advantage of this technology.

Such innovations could push the boundaries of the genre, forcing producers to prioritise genuine scenarios and unpredictable outcomes — a return to the very elements that first captivated viewers.

The writer is a Professor of Film and Media at Aberystwyth University in the UK

Republished from The Conversation

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 19th, 2024

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