Charlotte's Editorial
Charlotte Raven

My last word on Reality TV

By Charlotte Raven

On the few occasions I’ve taken part in a radio discussion, I struggle to say what I mean, even if the subject is close to my heart. I can’t think quickly enough to be spontaneous, but don’t want to sound stagey and on message like a politician. While I’m adjudicating, they are still asking questions! I always think of the thing I most wanted to convey or the argument that would have clinched it on the bus home. I’m not sure how common this commentator’s version of ‘esprit d’escalier’ is, where one thinks of a perfect retort too late.. One of the pleasures of having this platform is that I don’t need to sit at home cursing myself or ask the producer for another go.

“Is there anything else you want to say?” they often ask at the end of a recorded interview or studio discussion. I always say no, because I don’t want this painful process to be protracted, then regret it. In a soon to be aired discussion about the dilemmas of reality TV, with Mel from the first Big Brother, I missed a golden opportunity to revisit the question of whether the consent given by the by the participants of reality shows is in any way informed.

Everyone thinks they are fair game because they signed on the dotted line, and knew what they were letting themselves in for. I don’t buy this argument but know the rationale: like turkeys voting for Christmas, the people on Big Brother and other reality shows are the architects of their own fate – or the engineers of their doom.

There is no such thing as ‘informed consent’ in reality TV.  Brian Winston’s book Claiming the Real, fleshed out what I had intuited; that the participants on reality shows and documentaries are all assumed to have given ‘informed consent’ but none actually have if you define it as rigorously as scientists and clinicians must.

“It has been well established in science that the informed consent of subjects involved in experiments requires that it has been obtained freely and without coercion; that the procedure and it’s effects and potential effects by fully understood by the subject and the subject be competent to give consent.”

The participants in reality TV can’t give informed consent because:

(1) They don’t know what’s going to happen. The subject of reality TV can’t foresee what’s going to happen until they have gone through it. The way a particular person will play with the public can’t be predicted, nor can their individual experience. Often their naivety is a seen as a bonus, as we watch them on a steep learning curve. It would be fair to say that many, if not most, participants in reality programmes are deluded when they sign the release form. No one goes in thinking the public and other participants will hate them, or that they will be abused and tormented on a multitude of different platforms rather than feted. They sign the form before all this has happened, when they still think they will be rich and famous.

The people on Channel Four’s Benefits Street were differently deluded. They thought the filmmaker would be an ally, and were probably told that the film would be a sympathetic portrait of the effect of the benefit cuts on human beings. Variations on this phrasing have been used to justify the most intrusive and exploitative ‘poverty tourism’, like Benefits Street and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The disparity between the thing that’s in their minds when they sign the release form and what appears on screen are often so great that legal redress is sought.  They feel violated, understandably, and don’t know how else to express it.

(2) They are differently coerced. Many of the subjects are vulnerable and might have trouble thinking through the pros and cons of this particular type of public scrutiny. Before she went in, would Jade have thought the public would interpret her lack of education as stupidity? Did anyone hint at this possibility that people would enjoy watching her because it made them feel better about themselves? Of course they didn’t. The omnipotent TV execs knew all this but didn’t tell her: she is being denied the information that would make an informed choice.

(3) They didn’t “ask for it.” Participants are assumed to be complicit in the whole process, from signing the release form to the moment when they are being publicly vilified. Once their uninformed consent is obtained they are held personally responsible for every envious tweet or journalistic brick bat that comes their way. The media and public wants this to be the case, otherwise the responsibility lies with them. It’s become so normal that we no longer see it as perverse.

Victim blaming is rife. It’s easy to blame the poor for their misfortune, women for sexual harassment and reality TV stars for their trolling on twitter. Women and poor people have people speaking up for them. But no one speaks for reality stars – they are the lowest of the low.

They often cut a ridiculous figure because they’ve been cast and emotionally styled into familiar archetypes; ‘the bitch’, ‘the weeper’ (Casey in CBB), ‘the one you love to hate (Katie Hopkins in The Apprentice). In this atmosphere, Hunger Games looks prophetic. If next year’s CBB housemates were asked to fight to death to maintain social order, they still wouldn’t get any sympathy.

Hating or loving reality TV stars makes you part of the storyline. I spent the last ten years doing exactly that – slagging off the crap and weird ones and hoping my favorites, like Mel, would make it through. I’ve been so engrossed in this three ring circus for so long that I never noticed how little I cared about the people, compared with how much I thought I cared.

(4) The pornographisation of reality. Reality TV is pornographic, by definition. The subjects are always dehumanised because the camera’s gaze is always objectifying, which explains why no one empathises with the participants. Like porn stars, they only exist for your pleasure. Reality TV is repetitive and addictive like porn: it doesn’t’ need to be innovate to keep you hooked. The same scenes are repeated over and over again ad infinitum, with minor variations, but we are still glued to the screen.

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