Breeding Reality TV In 1947, Allen Funt’s Candid Camera started catching people in the act of being themselves. It was real cute. These days, trans media multinational machines are fetishing its mutated great grand children. Mark Cherry checks out the 2001 gene pool. In the daydream years between Desert Storm and September 11, dedicated couch potatoes hesitantly began to supplement reality with soapies and infotainment, later turning to home renovation and lifestyle shows in a further bid to colorize their lives. But as the millennium drew to a close, audi- ences increasingly found that, really nothing could beat a bowl of buttery popcorn and the sugary, voyeuristic high of reality TV. Faster, cheaper, and more disposable than anything this side of sport, reality television soon estab- lished itself as the must have McMeal of TV programming. Now the cheque books are out, and new series ideas are breeding faster than Big Brother sub plots. But amidst the happy noise there are still some mixed signals. The Promax Reality TV Panel During September an even, called PROMAX/BDA, ANZ 2001 took place in the modernist bowels of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum. Promoted as the Australian chapter of the world's leading con- ference and awards ceremony for television. radio and digital media, 'he event coaxed key televi- sion creatives out of the shadows into the Powerhouse's muted meeting rooms for a bit of mutual backslapping. The following TV heavyweights sat :In on a 'Reality TV' panel discussion: Maurice Parker (Execu- tive Producer, Foxtel), Helen Ryan (General Manager, MTV Australia.), Trevor Eastwood (Lifestyle Channel), Peter Abbott (Executive Producer, Big Brother) and David Mason (Mason Media), A rose by any other name: Documentary? Technically, reality TV can be documentary,' says Murray. In fact, under the current deﬁnition of documentary in the government's 10BA legislation (dealing with investor tax breaks), something like Big Brother may qualify as a doco, whereas a documen- tarystyle program that deals with the future may fail, simply because it's about the future. 'The Department of Communications has acknowledged there is a problem with the deﬁnition of documentary under 10BA because of this kind of thing. It needs to be revamped. It's a very old pro- vision.' Is anyone hurt by Reality TV? Although there is no empirical evidence that reality TV has siphoned resources away from other types of programming, there is some disquiet among drama and doco directors about this new kind of TV 'It has been seen as a remedy for problems like this year's writers' strike in the USA. Who needs writers when you can shoot and schedule the new Survivor without them?' Anecdotal reports also tend to 'Indicate that US networks look more favourably at reality shows than at dramas, because of cost. However Murray isn't convinced that less drama is being produced in Australia yet. 'The stuff that is disappearing compared to ten years ago is comedy. That's risky. That's what's missing.' He sounds exasperated. 'We've got more infotainment and more reality. The networks just keep dishing up repeated permutations of the same crap.' He sighs, 'How many home renovation, garden renovation, and reality shows can people watch?' Can reality rot your teeth? But the voices of Harris and Murray, are lost in the heavy crossmedia promotional grunt wielded by the reality marketing machines. There here is a reason for all this ﬁrepower. 'We need to get the audience from 0 to 100 in the ﬁrst episode to make them work,' says David Mason. No expense is spared in the attempt to create an instant viewing habit. Success is measured by the way multiple product tieins, celebrity endorsements, competitions and spinoff events feedback on the program itself. These synergies make for a commercial and ratings wet dream. As Mason puts it, 'When you get it right you get it spectacularly right.' And it stands to reason that, if the results really are so spectacular, further genesplicing of reality into other TV gen- res is the next logical step. Even refusing to watch may not be enough. Reality television values are slowly inching towards current affairs, news, drama, documentary, and beyond. Not only are they impacting on how other shows are made and look (handheld, verite, surveillance), but they're also becoming what we settle for when we switch on the box. More problematically, it's possible that programming think of as relatively objective will soon be 'reality effected,' in subtle. barely noticed ways that pass without protest, But it's not that low tech aesthetics, contrived product enriched media moments, and nauseatingly disposable celebrities will kill us. It's just that, in reality, it's all pretty boring. What is reality TV and where did it all begin? According to Foxtel's Maurice Parker, reality TV is about 'real people a real environment doing real things.' Could it be that simple? Not for everyone. for David Mason of Mason Media (The Mole, Who Dares Wins), ere are two main strands to reality. First of all there is 'reality entertainment,' with its roots stretching back to ﬁfties and sixties game shows. These programs, like Big Brother and the Mole, all have an element of competition running through them. 'Docusoap', the other strand, includes Sylvania Waters and Cops. Her, the camera gathers images of 'people doing their stuff' without artiﬁcially introduced challenges. Trevor Eastwood, of the pay TV Lifestyle Channel, prefers to think : reality TV as a collection of hybrids. 'It really is ﬁve or six different categories lumped together. it's an evolving thing that touches on lot of different types of programming.' But the roots of the genre are tangled. Peter Abbott suggests Candid camera is the original reality TV show, whereas Helen quietly offers an MTV series, The Real World, now in its ninth US season, as the true forerunner of what we understand as docusoap reality TV. his may well be the case. Why is Reality TV so popular? According to Mason, 'It takes television off the pedestal. It takes way the experts, and presents its reality as a reﬂection of what we as audiences all do in our normal lives.' Parker is more bubbly. people "List love it, fun in to watch TV is about having something D talk about tomorrow.' Mason continues more softly, 'Reality is safe to see, safe to watch. !'I's comfortable. There may be some oftensive bits, but always within acceptable bounds.' So is Reality TV cheap programming? Veil, yes and no, according to Trevor Eastwood. It's cheaper than drama, but more expensive than lifestyle, which puts it somewhere between Wildside and Better Homes and Gardens. David Mason explains, 'We work on a 60:1 shooting ratio. To make something interesting, you're talking about taking thirty seconds out of three hours, and then somehow contextualising it enough to make it entertaining. It's not cheap.' Peter Abbot sighs and picks up the theme. 'We use 96 hours of rushes to make half an hour of TV V a day. Our crew on the ﬁrst Big Brother was 214. That's bigger than any drama I can think of; it's closer to a small television station.' And Abbott is considering adding another 15~20 people for the next series. Would you fake situations and pass it off as real TV? Mason distances himself from the word. 'In The Mole we don't fake. We contrive situations, but we always make sure that the audience knows what we've set up. Even the contestants know at the end how much was contrived.' Perhaps that's the case with The Mole, but there are other stories... Consider the case of Survivor 3, shot in the wilds of Africa. According to an insider, truckloads of wood were delivered at night by locals for contestants to ﬁnd the next morning while on .wood gathering missions'. Ever wondered how cameras are always on the spot when contestants are out there surviving in the wilderness or doing interesting stuff? Well apparently in Survivor 3 players were told (in no uncertain terms) not to even whisper or make plans off-mic or out of shot. They were instructed to literally wait for the crew to be present before ever 'really' doing anything. On occasion they were even asked to repeat scenes, Although nobody ever talks about it, there are lots of moments when good television is more important than reality. Is Reality TV here to stay? How far will It go? According to Parker, 'Reality TV combines drama with real people, group bonding, an element of competition, and the unknown, the unexpected. It's really what TV was invented for.' And already there are some pretty wild concepts out there. Playboy TV's 7 Lives Xposed, gives Playboy channel viewers access to the 'intimate lives of seven carefree young adults living in a loft apartment in LA's Silver Lake district.' Fifty cameras record their libidinous diversions in detail, from ever,y angle, Not man enough for you? What about Combat Missions, where Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, SWAT, and Delta Forces clash for bucks and macho cred? So, with love and war covered, it's not impossible to imagine that there may be a fringe interest in the life and death stakes proposed by the reality TV inspired ﬁlm Series 7, where killing is all part of the fun. But Mason, having apparently thought it through, can't see actual deaths ever really entering the equation. 'Firstiy, we are never going to see people killed or injured there are laws to stop this sort of thing. Producers would go to prison if that happened. Secondly, 1 don't think audiences want it. They want to feel sate. There is an element of fantasy, but it will be kept at fantasy.' The Lifestyle channel takes an even more holistic view, apparently seeing reality TV as the font of a new aesthetic. Eastwood predicts, 'Reality will permeate everything. 1 know everything we are making now has a reality element. A year ago, if we were doing a makeover show we would have celebrity guests, now we are much more likely to follow a group of ordinary people renovating. The genre is affecting everything, even if it has a ﬁnite life itself.' Other Signals Despite all the enthusiasm, there are more measured voices. Richard Harris, Director of the Australian Screen Directors Association (ASDA) notes that 'reality TV is really a strange term, because it's used to describe programming that is anything but real. At best, it's a highly manipulated reality with prizes at the end'. 'There are different areas,' says Nick Murray, President of the Screen Producers Association of Aus- tralia (SPAA) and CEO of Jigsaw Entertainment. 'A game show is a game show, even if it's shot on a grand scale on location. Survivor is a game show. Then there's shows like Popstars or Search for a Super Model. You also have programs with manufactured situations, like Big Brother. And then there are those with actual situations, like Drama School or RPH.'
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