The insurgence of reality television

 

Entering the Big Brother house as a “mildly homophobic heterosexual footy player” (Spencer 2002) Blair surprised both himself and viewers by forming a deep relationship with openly gay housemate Johnny, which culminated in Blair crying when Johnny was evicted. Reality programs such as ‘Big Brother’ have changed Australia’s perception of the ‘celebrity’ and represent how the nature of fame has changed in recent years. Housemates enter the house as regular people and exit as superstars who are invited to regular film premiers and show biz bashes.

Alison Neighbour suggests that this and the immense popularity of Big Brother indicate the nature of fame has changed dramatically in recent years. “A famous person was once required to have a particular talent, and to work their way up to a celebrated position. Now, instant stardom awaits anyone willing to let the nation watch them in their daily lives, or be humiliated through Production Company’s idea of entertainment” (2002 p1). Neighbour further suggests that the reason Big Brother has so much appeal is because it represents the aspirations of many Australians – fame and riches for doing nothing.

The conclusions that can be drawn from the immense popularity of Big Brother and Australia’s recent embrace of reality programs cannot be underestimated. As Kubey argues “Television has become our species preferred and most powerful means of mass communication” (1990: p xi) By analysing the popularity of the show, the audience participation and media reception of both the program and the housemates, it is evident that Big Brother has achieved enormous cultural and political work.

As Leisbet Van Zoonen argues representation within the media is not only a literal reflection of women’s and men’s lives and identities, but also in modes of thinking, sets of norms, values and current discourse. (1995: pp 311 – 327). The fact that, that 2. 8 million viewers watched the original season finale and Big Brother topped the 16 – 39 demographic for nine weeks (2003 p6) “provides a fascinating and often disturbing barometer of community attitudes” (Spencer 2002 p1). Each season popular opinion is drawn to the “typecast Australian”.

For three successive seasons, “12 supposed stereotypes entered the house” (Tranter 2003 p2) and every time the ‘average’ Australian won. Ben, Peter and Reggie – the winners of each season – are all working class heterosexuals with broad Australian accents. Unlike other genres of reality TV, the very nature of Big Brother is not purely for entertainment purposes, rather the audience is given a real stake in the narrative outcome (Roscoe 2003 p138). Consequently, the audience’s choices regarding their viewing preferences and who they feel comfortable watching on TV will differ from when they are watching other forms of television.

Therefore, we can assume from the way Australians voted that in a reality TV context Australians are more comfortable with people from average social, economic and cultural backgrounds. Both Jo Chichester and Tranter support this view. Chichester argues that Australian’s love of such ‘simple’ characters verify’s that we prefer someone that confirms the status quo. Using “inarticulate, unselfconscious, fish and chip shop owner ” (2003 p11) Reggie and her educational shortcomings as an example Chichester comments:

Australians have reverted to a long held admiration for the simple over the complex, the honest over the manipulative, the working class battler over the beautiful lawyer (2003 p11). The voting results equally reflected the general public’s negative attitude towards the A- typical and slightly ‘radical’ contestant. As noted by Tranter, four of the five most eccentric characters – in the first series – were evicted within the first five weeks and although ‘gay’ Johnnie stayed in until the seventh week he was voted off by 70% of the population, the first time he came up for eviction.

However, Big Brother also reaffirms the positive principal that ‘nice guys finish first’. Honesty, loyalty and genuine friendship are all traits possessed by the winners and runners up. Whilst in contrast, housemates portrayed as overly competitive or catty became immediately un-popular with the general public and the media. This was exemplified by the media backlash against Johnny once it was decided that he was being fake because he hugged his opponents after voting against them. As Tranter argues, “obviously being nice and moralistic are still valuable traits” (2003 p2).

In a political sense much can be gained from Big Brother. By examining the preferences of the public towards certain housemates and the effect of reality TV on the public, an insightful portrayal into Australian society can be gained. That Australians have a tendency to support the ‘average Australian’, that we still honour truthfulness and integrity and that we still hold strong prejudices are all valuable insights into that can determine political persuasion. However, the mass popularity of Big Brother can also show how hollowed out contemporary notions of social engagement have become.

The fact that Reggie’s win received more press than the Australian Government’s decision to send a delegation to Guantantanamo Bay to ensure David Hicks gets a fair trial is exemplary of this (Chichester 2003 P11). As Clair Fox argues “The crowds that gathered around the Big Brother website and the physical house, the mass phone in votes can be taken as proof that TV can help recreate a sense of engagement and participation where elections and politicians have failed” (2000 p1).

The surge in popularity of reality TV reveals that authenticity is still desirable, however the point at which something can be defined as ‘truly authentic’ has blurred . There is no doubt that Big Brother is not a complete reflection of reality. Images have been carefully framed, juxtaposed with other material and placed within the frame of a report with comment and analysis to guide the viewer (1998 p140) and by casting the candidates and setting tasks for the housemates to complete, the production team is able to manipulate the show.

However as, Van Loonen argues “there is no such thing as a delivered presence or truth and “representations contain only a fraction of what could have been presented, thus all are selective abstractions” (McQueen 1998 p140). In reality we focus on some things rather than others, order them in narrative and rank them importance (Spencer 2002 p1). Within everyday life we are constantly constructing and reconstructing our identities and roles by the way we relate to others.

As Judith Butler argues humans do not express some authentic inner “core”, but rather are the dramatic effect of performances, which shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times (1990 p25). This is supported by Erving Goffman, whom views interaction as a ‘performance’ shaped by environment and audience, constructed to provide others with “impressions” that are constant with the desired goals of the actor. (1959:17) Thus, I conclude that although society desires “the authentic”, the constantly changing world means that defining something or someone as ‘authentic’ is impossible.

Reality TV has come to play a large role in defining modern society. Whether it is a ‘boring show nothing’ (Wendy Harmer 2DayFM) or a program of ‘quality entertainment’ (Beth Spencer) the effects, achievements and popularity of programs such as Big Brother gives great insight into the culture of our nation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Belson, William 1967 The Impact of Television Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire Butler, Judith 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity London: Routeledge Chichester, Jo 2003 ‘Regs of society they may be, but we still love an underdog’ Sydney Morning Herald 23rd July p11.

Edgar, A & Sedgwick P (eds) 1999 Key Concepts in Cultural Theory London: Routeledge Gauntlett, David 2000 Media, Gender and Identity, London: Routeledge Gotting, Peter 2003 ‘That’s life, say networks, reality TV shows are here to stay’ Sydney Morning Herald 22nd July p6 Goffman, Erving The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life New York: Double Day Inglis, Fred 1990 Media Theory Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd Fargher, Stevie 2003 ‘Reality TV here to stay’ Illawara Mercury 1st August p17 Johnson – Woods, Tony 2002 Big Bother Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Kubey, Robert 1990 Television and the Quality of Life New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc Mcqueen, David 1998 Television A Media Student’s Guide London: Oxford University Press Roscoe, Jane 2001 Faking it: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press Schneider, Rebecca 1997 The Explicit Body in Performance London, New York: Routledge Van Zoonen L 1995 ‘Gender, Representation and the Media’ in Downing Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction 2nd ed Thousand Oaks: Sage Warnke, Ross 2003 ‘Dramas relieve a boring Big Brother’ The Age 24th August p6.

WEBSITES Gauntlett, David 2003 Media, Gender and Identity 16th August www. theoryhead. com Cook, Andi 2003 ‘Reality TV is an assault on family values’ The Daily News 1st August www. edailynews. info Fox, Claire 2000 Reality TV: get real 29th December www. spiked-online. com Neighbour, Alison 2003 Reality Check 15th August www. vision. york. ac. uk Reesink, Maarten 2003 Big Brother: Sign of the Times 15th August www. media-culture. org. au Spencer, Beth 2002 The Return of Big Brother 4th March www. abc. net. au Tranter, Nikki 200s Big Brother Australia 15th August www. popmatters. com.