TV's democratic deposit

A very interesting blog post by Andy (cross posted on his personal weblog) on developments in television and why "reality" TV may now no longer be able to claim it is genuinely participatory.  Andy's point, based on the daddy of reality shows, Big Brother, was that this kind of TV now lacks the sense of authenticity that it once had.  Emblematic of this was the possibility that a contestant on the most recent series might have been sponsored - before she went into the house - to sing a Janis Joplin song about Mercedes cars at regular intervals.  Her reward for doing this was (apparently) a shiny new Mercedes sports car (although presumably Mercedes would have been less pleased if she got onto the second line of the song, which name checks another well known brand of German sports car).  

This certainly seems to jar with the original claims of Big Brother when it launched in the UK in 2000 and in the years immediately afterwards.  Back then, the show had pretensions not only to being entertainment, but also to being a serious enquiry into the human condition.  There were frequent allusions to the Stanford Experiment as a pre-cursor to the show, and zoologist Desmond Morris said he was fascinated by the concept, to the extent that he was willing to write articles for the Channel Four website about the show.  The programme created as many column inches in the broadsheets as it did in the tabloids, with media commentators like Mark Lawson frequently writing about it. 

However, we shouldn't be surprised that this situation has now changed and the sort of example that Andy cites is occurring.  A vital element in the early installments of Big Brother was the security blanket the contestants were wrapped in - because no one had done TV like this before, none of the people in the house had a notion of how they would be received when they left, or, indeed, if anyone was even watching the show.  They were genuinely locked inside a bubble.  Now, contestants are completely aware of what is likely to be going on outside the house and they have a good idea what will happen to them when they leave.  That changes the whole nature of the series and the expectations of the people appearing on it.   

More generally, the format may have additional problems, which undermine claims it has to being genuinely participatory television.  If we go back to the original conception of Big Brother, we can see something that went further than promises of either authenticity or genuine sociological enquiry.  Big Brother, along with shows like Pop Idol, was in a wave of telly that proclaimed to employ a democratic model.  This had two aspects to it.  Firstly, the people on the show were regular folks - that is, people like us.  Anyone could audition and be selected to go on telly and become a star.  Secondly, whilst there would be celebratory and expert panelists, it was ultimately viewers who would be given the power to decide the course and outcome of the show.  At the time it might have been argued that this type of television heralded the rise of a new kind of "bottom up" (as opposed to "top down") television. 

But such arguments don't stack up, for at least three reasons.  Firstly, when the television companies adopted this model of programming, they did not do so because they had come to believe that democratic television was good television.  In contrast, they saw this type of programme as providing an effective economic model that allowed them to continue making profits in a very adverse environment.  Once upon a time, when there were only four channels, top-rated TV programmes could get audiences of twenty million viewers.  The top soaps might pull in, week-in-week-out, audiences of more than 15 million people (although, apparently Coronation Street had an all time high viewing figure of 27 million).  Of these four channels, only two - ITV and Channel 4 - were able to sell advertising.  This situation had two impacts.  Firstly, an advert placed on television would be seen by many, many people, so the advertising space was tremendously valuable.  Secondly, companies wishing to advertise products had few outlets to undertake this activity. 

Compare that with the situation now.  Viewing figures have dropped massively.  Last week, not a single programme was watched by more than 10 million people.  The media market has become atomized, not only because many homes have many more than the five terrestrial channels, but also because of the development of DVDs, computer games and the Internet.  This not only means that advertising space - for example the interval of Coronation Street - is worth less than it once was, but also that companies hoping to advertise are looking at alternative means of reaching the public.  Do they necessarily want to spend their ad budget at ITV, or would they rather buy Google banner ads, for example?

The democratic model of television offered one solution to this problem.  The people appearing on the programme weren't famous, so didn't demand high appearance fees (heck, a lot of them would probably have done it for free).  Generally - although I would actually imagine Big Brother is something of an exception to this, as it quite an intricate production - reality TV is cheaper to make than drama.  And, most crucially of all, the programme can be financed from the revenues made from members of the public phoning into vote.  Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised then that a model of media economics that was adopted because it was profitable has ultimately come to be seen as corrupt and untrustworthy. 

Secondly, the early promise of TV featuring "people like us" clearly wasn't happening.  In fact, the people chosen for these participatory forms of programming were in no way representative of the British public.  On occasions, this might have had positive impacts in combating prejudices against certain people in our society - for example, transsexuals or those who suffered from Tourette's Syndrome - but often it left the impression that the producers of the show were actually trying hard to do the opposite of what they had claimed originally - instead of "people like us", the were giving viewers people "who were not like us at all, thank god".  More often than not, it seemed the reality TV shows were pandering to people's prejudices, rather than seeking to undermine them.  And to be fair, we rewarded them.  The more conflict, the more outlandish the housemates, the louder the arguments - the more we watched and more we voted. 

At the other end of the scale, talent-based participatory programmes weren't really showing people like us either.  The people doing the auditions weren't off the streets or working ordinary jobs.  Often they had been to stage school or even worked in theatre or performance.  These programmes were becoming established as an alternative root into show business rather than discoverers of new talent. 

Thirdly, we really need to question where power lies in reality TV.  On the surface, it might appear that viewers do have a great deal of control, via the medium of telephone voting (let's assume for the a second that the voting process itself is beyond reproach).  But how free and informed are the choices that viewers make?  There are at least two reasons to have doubts about this.

Firstly, producers still control who appears on programmes through the audition process, and they decide the rules of the game.  I used to watch Big Brother for the first few series (I think the last one I really watched was Big Brother Four and - unlike most people - I really enjoyed it).  However, I found that Germaine Greer's critique of the programme, after she had briefly appeared in the celebrity version of the show, was very powerful.  The producers have stupendous power to control and modify the behavior of the people in the house - they control the diet of the contestants, their access to alcohol and other substances (for example, tobacco), their activities, the furniture, their sleep patterns, and everything else that goes on in their lives.  This is a stupendous degree of control to have over a group of human beings, and could easily be abused.  That's certainly what seemed to be happening when, following the low ratings of series four, the producers of the show proudly proclaimed it was getting "evil".  That made me feel deeply uncomfortable (power and evil, after all, are probably not a good mix).

Additionally, as well as the control they have over what is actually happening in the house, the producers of the show have a second power that further undermines the ability of viewers to make informed decisions, and thus the claims of the programme to be genuinely participatory.  Any level of participation on the part of the viewers requires them to have access to information about what is going on in the house.  What they actually have access to is a version of what is going on in the house, created by producers and editors of the programme by splicing together video and sound that has been recorded to make a narrative.  As a result, events can be emphasized, downplayed or even removed from existence altogether.  On some levels, we have to acknowledge that this is how TV works (as has been highlighted recently), but how does it relate to a TV form that claims to be authentic and participatory?