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Reality TV-How Real is Real?

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{ Critical Eye on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

Reality TV-How Real is Real?
Hull Truck, 21 November

A question from the audience: what is the connection between the television editor of Heat magazine, an Oxford historian, a regular guest on The Moral Maze, a famous author, the director of Meet the Kilshaws, and a star of Fame Academy? Answer: they were all present at this evening's stimulating and good-natured debate at Hull Truck. The individuals in question were panellists Boyd Hilton, Felipe Fernandez Armesto, Claire Fox, Blake Morrison, Victoria Mapplebeck and, chipping in from the audience, Hull's own Pippa Fulton.

Opinions were certainly divided over the subject of reality television, which is itself a concept that is a contradiction in terms-how can television be reality, or, for that matter, vice versa? Mapplebeck made the point that, as a documentary maker, part of her job involves the selection of what is eventually seen on television from a vast stockpile of footage, editing and compressing sometimes as much as an entire year of people's lives into a few hours' viewing. She points out that much documentary commentary consists of middle class guys telling us how to feel about the working class people we watch. She argues that these kinds of interventions by documentary makers exceed those of reality television, and so the latter locates the power of representation not with the show's makers, but its subjects. When an interactive element is added, she says, this also hands power over to the viewers. Mapplebeck sees all of this as refreshingly anarchic.

According to Hilton, the live streaming of reality television is about as close to unmediated reality as the medium can get. Like Mapplebeck, Hilton is also a fan of reality television, though, as a member of the Heat team, he admits to having a vested interest, as reality television plays a significant role in keeping his esteemed organ afloat. He sees reality television as being quite a lot like television drama, only better. This is due to the totally unpredictable nature of the real people involved. Whereas characters in a drama are controlled by the dramatist and made to 'represent' or embody something, and function to reveal plot while revealing themselves, the agenda of reality television's 'characters' is always uncertain. The story of Jade's gradual unfolding to us on Big Brother 3 is the most recent, and instructive example, Hilton claims, teaching the nation a lesson about how we all judge people on first impressions.

Armesto sees the origins of this apparently new televisual phenomenon in the tradition of the documentary, where a candid camera follows real lives. He makes an interesting comparison between this documenting process and what a dramatist does when searching out and selecting a slice of life to present to an audience. However, dramatists are advantaged by a lifetime of observing human beings and by their skilled ability to create from these observations something that could be called a work of art-a thing that speaks to us of the human condition in a uniquely profound manner. Armesto confesses to not watching reality television, so how seriously one might take his comments is debatable, even though the man's formidable intelligence is both obvious and frightening.

Fox points out the indisputable popularity of reality television, but also doubts that it can be more insightful of the human condition than, say, Shakespeare. She expresses her concern that, as the genre becomes more and more influential on all levels of television, it is tempting to attribute to it social roles that may prove spurious. Nevertheless, when something is massively popular, it is down to the cultural observer to account for this. Armesto cheekily puts reality television's apparent victory over television drama down to the fact that today's networks no longer produce top-notch drama. He wonders at Andrew Davis and his "strange monopoly to mangle great novels and turn them into ghastly adaptations."

According to Morrison, the popularity stems from the genre's scopophilic and voyeuristic draw. He agrees with Fox on the superiority of drama, and shares her concern over reality television's stealthy domination of the medium. Unlike Armesto, Morrison is a viewer of reality television, but he says this is because he "enjoys watching crap TV now and again." He does therefore not share Mapplebeck's view of reality television as a democratic and empowering televisual genre. Rather, he sees the power residing with the programme makers. He sees reality television as a cruel phenomenon that places people with unrealistically high expectations in highly artificial conditions and then heavily mediates the filmed results. Through editing, the programme makers are free to manipulate and construct real people until they become, at best, two-dimensional caricatures. Conversely, drama and fiction, which note, but then transcend the observed minutiae of the personal, will always provide us with the means to understand the wider issues of the world.

Tabloids are, of course, famous for confusing information with knowledge, so it is little surprise that they seem so obsessed with reality television. Mapplebeck opened an interesting discussion on the relationship between reality television and the gutter press, claiming that Big Brother has, in its more recent series, climbed into bed with the tabloids, aiding and abetting their mindless character assassinations. Newspapers inferred that the Kilshaws 'adopted a baby from the Internet', a typical and gross oversimplification in Mapplebeck's view. She sees reality television as capable, if not always willing to provide a deeper take on life than the pervasive moronic tabloid mindset.

Mapplebeck believes the interactive element of reality television to be democratic. However, Armesto disagrees. "Voting people off is just sick," he says. He sees the influence on the genre of Japanese game shows, where people are given silly things to do, their public humiliation forming the basis for the entertainment. Morrison agrees with him, seeing the phenomenon as akin to bear baiting, cockfighting or the public execution. Certainly there is a gladiatorial element to the spectacle, where the audience can decide on the survival of an individual by giving them the thumbs up or thumbs down. Mapplebeck concedes that this sort of coverage might be called exploitation, but calls for programme makers to safeguard the process of recruitment of volunteers, so no one is taken on that might feel victimized by the heavy exposure. Hilton seems to give more responsibility to the viewers, as he believes them capable of seeing Big Brother's Jade not as a profoundly stupid individual, but disadvantaged by her background and lack of access to knowledge.

At this point Fulton contributes, and opens up a fascinating discussion by arguing that Jade was putting on an act for the benefit of the cameras, even suggesting that two of her Academy buddies, who here shall remain nameless, engage in a similar sort of deception. Despite acknowledging the importance of 'personality' in her chosen profession, Fulton insists that she was always 'being herself' during her stint on telly. Hilton challenged this notion of 'being oneself' by saying that, even in 'real life' events, such as the anxious excitement of the first date, one puts on what one hopes is an attractive persona. It would seem that each of us rarely has just one self to be! What is more, when the cameras and several million viewers are watching, and seventy grand at stake, one might expect an uncertain amount of phoniness to creep in and cloud the supposed reality that we watch. Indeed, it seems rather obvious to say that we can never 'know' any mediated personality. So what, exactly, is it that we are voting for?

When people go on to reality television programmes they leave behind their work, family and friends to enter a highly artificial situation. When all of an individual's 'normal life' is stripped away like this, then what is it that is left behind for us to watch? Fox does not believe it to be the 'soul' or essence of that person. In any case, it seems to be the case that personality is not fixed, but ever changing, and dependent on context. Whatever distinctions we may be capable of drawing in terms of where reality ends and pretence begins, we cannot deny an increasing interest in how ordinary people-who or whatever they may be-feel about things, rather than deep, serious and sustained thoughtfulness. What are the implications if I can only gain pleasure as a spectator insofar as I recognise a representation of an 'ordinary person', like myself, on television? What of the rigorous exercise of my intellect demanded of me by encounters with the unfamiliar? What of the imaginative leap, that carries me far beyond the known and the mundane, and into the previously unknown? Can we really hope to understand the world and our actions in it with any sense of the rich fullness of its complexity if all we are prepared to do is obsess about Jade? Right now, it seems as if the small screen is not always capable of giving us the bigger picture.