Fake Big Brother, bogus Balls of Steel: the *real* reality television

Paul Raven @ 11-09-2009

video cameraNow here’s an example of the serendipitous way that stories seem to glom together when you blog regularly. A few days ago I noticed a post at MetaFilter about Ikea Heights, a rather silly guerrilla drama show filmed entirely in a large Ikea store without the permission (or, apparently, the awareness) of the staff, and I felt a push on my “interesting” switch. [image by ZapTheDingbat]

I felt sure there was something to say about the eroding barrier between “official” television and amateur media, about the reappropriation of corporate spaces for unofficial purposes, and about the potential for a more genuine (if no more pleasant) form of reality television – namely, one not constrained by the laws and vetting processes that a real production company would have to obey to get clearance for their shows.

I kicked the post around a bit, but I just couldn’t find a decent hook to lead from Ikea Heights to where I wanted to go… until last night, when I noticed a story at The Guardian about a fake Big Brother-esque set-up in Turkey where someone convinced a bunch of young female models to move into a luxury villa full of cameras:

The women had responded to an ad seeking contestants for a reality show which would be aired on a major Turkish television station, Dogan said. The nine captives, including a teenager, were selected from other applicants following an interview.

They were made to sign a contract which stipulated that they could have no contact with their families or the outside world, and would have to pay a fine of 50,000 Turkish lira (£20,000) if they left the show in the first two months, the agency reported.

Dogan and HaberTurk newspaper both reported that the women realised they were being duped and asked to leave the villa. According to Dogan, they were told they could not leave unless they paid the fine. Those who insisted were threatened.

Thinking about it, I’m almost surprised that no one had done it before. But that story really highlights how much of an oxymoron “reality television” actually is… reality programming is in many senses less “real” than almost any other sort of television, thanks to the editing processes used to make the tedium of normal human interaction more interesting. The only way to make real reality shows would be to circumvent not just laws but customary production values… would the results be more popular than television or less? I rather suspect they would. Would the excitement of the best moments of totally unfiltered reality balance out the long stretches of mundanity that inevitably accompany the daily lives of real people? In other words – would people watch a house full of people who had no idea they were being watched?

I’ve also been wondering about “candid camera” shows, which appear to be making something of a comeback in a more edgy format – I’m thinking specifically of a show here in the UK called Balls of Steel, wherein the contestants go out into the world and do weird, shameful, embarrassing or provocative things in front of the unsuspecting public. [There are some clips on the Channel 4 website, if you’ve not seen it.]

Now, if I understand the law properly, these shows can’t be as completely guerrilla as they claim to be – at the very least, I’m sure they’d have to get permission from the victims to broadcast their humiliation or risk a lawsuit, and I imagine that financial recompense of some sort comes into the equation… and that’s charitably assuming that the things aren’t fakes from the ground upwards, with the “victims” being completely aware of what’s about to happen to them. While it’s never explicitly stated that the stunts are set-ups, every effort is spent on framing them as if they definitely aren’t – the jokes lose all force when you realise that the guy who just had a bag full of cheeseburgers lobbed at his head from a passing car knew they were coming.

But we now have the affordable technology (hand-held video cameras of passable picture quality) and the multicast infrastructure (YouTube, Vimeo and all the others) for genuinely anonymous and unsanctioned candid camera and reality programs. Remember the “happy slapping” fad? If the participants had taken more care over making themselves and their uploaded videos untraceable, and focussed on doing things that the victims would be too embarrassed to report to the authorities, you could have had a viral guerrilla video success on your hands.

Genuine discomfort, genuine humiliation; the television networks would do it if the law would let them, because they know how popular it would be, and how valuable the ads accompanying it. It won’t be long before a few smart people come to the same conclusion… and that will be the final death-knell for broadcast television, reality or otherwise.

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2 Responses to “Fake Big Brother, bogus Balls of Steel: the *real* reality television”

  1. Justin Pickard says:

    Fascinating post, Paul – the Ikea drama is madcrazyawesome. Also, I read this piece on deviance & domesticity by Will Wiles of Icon magazine, and thought it linked up with this in an interesting way. Any thoughts?

  2. ps. says:

    These types of campaigns can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. The first aim of Phenomenology is to “reawaken” a sense of wonder about one’s environment. Showcasing these attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the campaign and their relationships with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with these campaigns will provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewers perception and attention to “detail.” To catalyze a thoughtful dialogue deconstructing the process of image absorption is the ultimate goal. All in the name of fun and observation. The medium is the message.