Those sceptical friends of the first viewers of The Hills, Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex who complained of the patent fakeness of their professionally paced bickering and impeccable camera direction clearly missed the point. It was for the first wave of reality television embodied in Big Brother to briefly promise authenticity, calling itself a ‘social experiment’ and undertaking increasingly sadistic ways to provoke extreme behaviour in its subjects. In practice, most of the footage captured mundane scenes of the contestants lying in bed or on sofas, making faintly passive aggressive remarks at each other. It did not take a master satirist to make the comparison between the activity on screen, and that of the viewers. Big Brother became viewing that belonged to everyday ‘down time’, television to be chatted over, texted through, or watched in a tired moment simply because it was on.
The masterstroke of the ‘structured reality’ of Made in Chelsea and TOWIE is to identify and capitalise on this fairly specific space of experience. When we watch these shows we usually do so conscious of their awfulness while still being somehow sincerely invested. It is as if their ideal viewer is one who assumes that someone else is taking the show more seriously than they are, and that, while they are prepared to enjoy it as something to watch during down time, they have managed to keep a part of themselves archly distant from this guilty pleasure. As with Big Brother, self-engrossed everyday chitchat is going on both among the subjects on the screen and among the viewers sat in front of it, only this time it seems to be factored in as the ideal condition of viewing.
When people make identical complaints about the banality of what gets posted on social media and the banality of reality television, they usually miss that what is properly at stake is not the usual conservative mythologies about cultural dumbing down. The real danger represented by these platforms that increasingly fill our content-less moments is not that they simply ‘reflect’ our mundane everyday existence, but that they surreptitiously claim the right to define what counts as everyday in the first place. The seriousness of this can be seen in the relative political homogeneity of three apparently culturally diverse examples of contemporary reality television. The submerged political articulations of Made in Chelsea (‘the minutiae of the love dilemmas of the country’s most privileged people are worth the attention of the rest of us’), TOWIE (‘people from historically working class families naturally would want to imitate the luxuries of their social superiors given the resources’) and The Jeremy Kyle Show (‘addiction, crime and sexual indiscriminateness are everyday matters for the benefit scroungers on council estates’) are uniformly conservative. As much as social media has shown our everyday moments to be marketable, reality television has shown them to be political. It is a colonisation the Left ignores at its peril.
Read part 1 here