01 June 2009

Reality TV Bullshit

Simon Mayo had an apologist (I didn't catch his name) for Britain's Got Talent on his show just now (I started writing this at about 2pm). The apologist was there to defend the programme against cries of the exploitation of children and of Susan Boyle. Now I have watched exactly zero minutes of Britain's Got Talent since the programme started running so I can not comment on whether children were mentally harmed in the making of the series or really say whether that dance troupe should have won or not. No what I did, which I think is like many people in my position did, is accidentally* read articles about what is going on in the broadsheets** or on an online new service.

I hope Susan Boyle bounces back very quickly from the stress that she apparently suffered towards the end of Britain's Got Talent and I hope that she is able to translate her success, for all that she didn't win she did have a great success, into a way of making money that she is comfortable with and can manage.

We all know as some level that the "reality" in these shows is highly manipulated and controlled. Loosing Big Brother contestants routinely complain that the programmes shown were edited either to show them in an unfairly bad light or to make the winner look good. In Susan Boyle's case the only people who did not know that she had a good voice before she started singing were the audience in the studio. Those looks of surprise and amazement that judges had on their faces were well practised and fake as a 3 pound coin. The producers will defend themselves by saying that they've got to create something that is interesting with a narrative thread throughout the series in order to get the viewers interested, and that's fair enough. No one objects apart from the person who feels they've been stitched up but there is a difference between creating a narrative thread and exposing someone to a huge amount of intrusive interest all in the name of publicising your programme.

Susan Boyle was presented to the public as a freak. She had the "Voice of an Angel, Face of a Minger" with a sweet back story of a quiet shy retiring life, a spinster who looked after her old mum and sang in the church choir. Added bonus she has a disability, not one that would be unsightly and put the viewing public off their dinner, but a little bit of learning difficulties caused by oxygen deprivation at birth so ready made sob story. I want to be clear here, I am not accusing Susan Boyle of exploiting her life history or do I think she's a minger come to that, but the producers must have started mentally counting viewing figures when they first heard about her.

Now they could have presented Ms Boyle to the public in many ways but they appeared to choose the method that maximised the public impact and crucially the media's interest too. Once going it was a juggernaut, I'd no interest in the programme but it was impossible to escape, even a cultural pseud like myself didn't stand a chance, the Guardian had features about how the Americans went bonkers for her and in the media/IT sections about how ITV were missing out on millions of revenue because of a dispute with You Tube. Radio 4 did its usual disingenuous thing of "reporting on the media coverage" as a fig leaf for reporting on Susan Boyle and the competition. The bloggisphere and twitterverse appeared to hang on every word. Even I cracked watching the You Tube video.

So when she didn't win and the unfortunate events of yesterday happened it was was not surprising that the parties who created the publicity monster in the first place were busy today distancing themselves from the carnage. I think the statement that made me angry came from the producer's apologist (remember him from the first para?) he said that there was no way that they could have expected the media feeding frenzy that descended on Ms Boyle.

I call this complete and utter bullshit.

We've had roughly ten years of the modern reality TV show with Big Brother being the big daddy of them all. All these programmes have relied on media hype for their publicity and the feeding frenzies that fell upon certain contestants, Jade Goody being the most famous case. It's not as if it's a new phenomenon. They should have had some idea as to what could happen so to claim it was unexpected is, in my book a sign that you're not fit to do your job.

*"accidentally" ranging from - your eye is drawn to the headline like it is to a zit in the middle of a beautiful face to "Oh whoops did I click on the article about Britain's Got Talent? I meant to click on the 10 thousand word essay about the renaissance of Bulgarian opera."

** Broadsheets - papers that pretend to have aspirations serious news reporting. Now mostly found in tabloid or Berliner sizes.


  1. Must admit I got sucked into the whole BGT thing, without reall thinking about the impact it has on the people involved.
    I remember how stressed I was with a tiny article in the local rag. This level of mass mad media exposure that these people have to cope with would certainly send me over the edge.
    You're right that it is totally disingenuous for the producers to claim they could not forsee the reaction when that is exactly what they craved.
    I feel chastened today

  2. Anonymous02 June, 2009

    Reality television.. something of an oxymoron, no?

    I used to think the contestants of reality shows deserved everything they got - I mean nobody goes into these things unaware of the risks, surely. Just how morally bankrupt are TV producers & executives? Are there any lengths they won't go to for ratings? Is there any line they won't cross? Will the viewing public ever wise up? I seriously doubt that.