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Reality TV is a huge success to the television industry in the 1990s. As a genre description, reality TV is widening its usage from ‘news magazine programmes based round emergency service activities’ to ‘talk shows, docusoaps’ and a variety of ‘first-person’ programmes (Creeber, 2001: 135). ‘Reality TV’ with extensive meaning becomes popular to describe ‘any factual programme based on an aesthetic style of apparent “zero-degree realism” – in other words a direct, unmediated account of events, often associated with the use of video and surveillance-imaging technologies’ (Creeber, 2001: 135).
While Barnfield has criticized ‘the loose usage of the term, suggesting that over the last decade such a wide range of productions have been categorized as “Reality TV” that one wonders if the term is too general to be helpful'(Holmes and Jermyn, 2004: 3). It is true that ‘reality TV’ is not explicit enough in meaning. However, it is the best word applicable to all situations and never unilateral. It gives producers more space to innovate new programmes as to prosper this genre. Reality TV evolves with the development of new technologies.
New sub-genres emerged as the hybrids of established genres. It challenges traditional documentary and changes the serious content to more entertainment elements. Every format is close to everyday life to convince the audience as ‘real’ programming. In the short history of only two decades, reality TV has evolved into various formats. I will focus on five main forms which have either had a remarkable effect on television history or unprecedented audience ratings with reference to relevant representative programmes of British television. Contested Generic Identification: Definition of Reality TV
It seems difficult to issue a particular definition of ‘reality TV’ to attest to debates over it. As Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn point out: Producing a particular definition of Reality TV is nevertheless complex. This is partly because of the fundamentally hybrid nature of the forms in question. Yet it is also because of the range of programming to which the term ‘Reality TV’ has been applied, as well as the extent to which this has shifted over time with the emergence of further permutations in ‘reality-based’ texts. (Holmes and Jermyn, 2004: 2).
Jon Dovey characterised this genre by ‘reference to the dominant and original forms of Reality TV that feature police and emergency service work’ (Dovey, 2000: 80). In his opinion, as form and construction, reality TV should be: i?? camcorder, surveillance or observational ‘actuality footage’; i?? first-person participant or eye-witness testimony; i?? reconstructions that rely upon narrative fiction styles; i?? studio or to-camera links and commentary from ‘authoritative’ presenters; i?? expert statements from emergency services personnel or psychologists.
(Dovey, 2000: 80) These elements are helpful in interpreting the origins of reality programmes and in understanding its sub-genres and new development. Only by bearing these elements in mind can we make reference to relevant programmes when we trace back history to discuss the evolution of reality TV. Is it American Innovation? : Historical Precedent of Reality TV There is no consensus about the first reality programme. Jon Dovey thought that ‘Reality TV is generally historically located as beginning in the US with NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries in 1987’ (Dovey, 2000: 81).
While Bradley D. Clissold considered that ‘during the years that it aired, Candid Camera (US, 1948- ), arguably the first ‘Reality TV’ programme, proved itself to be one of US TV’s most memorable, enduring and popular shows’ (Holmes and Jermyn, 2004: 33). There is a consensus that the earliest reality programme came out in America. In addition to these mentioned above, other commentators like Richard Kilborn, Chad Raphael and Gareth Palmer all agreed with this conclusion (Kilborn, 2003: 55; Palmer, 2003: 21).
In the commercial environment in America, technologies like cable, satellite and digital prospered reality programmes in television market. However, reality TV as a television genre has evolved into ‘a very strong Eurpoean form with regional variations in each country’ (Dovey). In mid-1980s, when surveillance technology such as CCTV (closed-circuit television) became accessible, Britain produced its own reality programmes, which revealed real accidents, crimes and emergencies.
By using CCTV footage, these reality programmes departed from traditional documentary and were quickly accepted by the curious audience because of their witness techniques. They were real shows without actors and noted for low-cost which was attractive to most programme-makers. Among these early reality programmes, Crimewatch (BBC, 1984- ) was most influential. Jon Dovey said it ‘has been seen as central to the development of the form, particularly in respect of debates around criminology and the media’ (Creeber, 2001: 135). Deborah Jermyn, who is experienced in studying television crime appeal, commented on Crimewatch:
Promoting the growth of crime-appeal programming in Britain – with a format where serious unsolved crimes are reconstructed, police and victims’ families interviewed, images of suspects publicized and the public encouraged to phone in and volunteer information – by this time the series had comfortably established itself as Britain’s foremost crime-appeal programme. (Holmes and Jermyn, 2004: 71) The effectiveness of Crimewatch as a detergent to crimes has been under much debate. It entertained the audience, but it was weak as a warning to the criminals.
As Jermyn commented: ‘indeed some criminals have claimed that the poor-quality CCTV footage they witnessed on Crimewatch actually gave them an incentive to commit crime’ (Holmes and Jermyn, 2004: 82). ‘The use of CCTV conspicuously enhances the programme’s claims to authenticity and underlines its sense of a privileged relationship with real crime and actuality, qualities which programme-makers evidently believe to be ratings winners’ (Holmes and Jermyn, 2004: 83). In this case it is exciting for the audience to see the ‘raw’ footage without caring much about its effect of crime appeal.
These early reality programmes about crime appeal, accidents and emergencies formed a new documentary format, which was the precedent of a new genre-reality TV. Later popular factual entertainment programmes are based on these elements to innovate. Their effect is remarkable in a long term. ‘Fly-Off-the-Wall’: Video Diaries Known as Access TV The 1990s was a golden era for the prevalence of reality TV. Jon Dovey points out: ‘it seems that “ordinary people”, non-professional broadcasters, have never been more present on our screens’ (Dowmunt, 1993: 163).
Camera is no longer simply ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to observe and record, but closes to the object to become active ‘fly-off-the-wall’. For a long time, access TV, as new reality television, has been in a great demand. According to Jon Dovey, ‘there are some fundamental principles that identify access programming; they centre around control and power over the programme-making process’, especially ‘the authors should have control over the whole process of representation’ (Dowmunt, 1993: 165). Camcorder and video technology opened up expansive space for access TV.
‘Non-professional broadcasters’ became a leading role in making these programmes. As Patricia Holland commented on this innovative style: The video diary style, in which programmes are made with domestic video equipment by members of the public rather than by television professionals, has introduced a new way of making programmes. Low-tech, with a less polished appearance, they seem to bring the audience even closer to the realities they show. (Holland, 1997: 158) Video Diaries, produced by the BBC Community Programme Unit from 1990-1999, was a representative of access TV.
From these series of programmes, Jon Dovey noted: the Unit solicits and researches ideas from potential diarists with a compelling story to tell. Once chosen, the diarist is trained in the use of an S-VHS camera and packed off to shoot their story, with support from the Unit should it be needed. In this way the diarists are given not only editorial control but also control over the means of production. They return with anything up to 200 hours of material and attend all the edit sessions, from an initial assembly which is viewed and discussed at length to the offline and online edit processes.
(Dowmunt, 1993: 167) The format of Video Diaries is a development of documentary. Gareth Palmer has explained that it ‘imported the authorizing and legitimizing discourse of documentary into the personal, and in doing so it imported also documentary’s ordering principle into individual lives’ (Palmer, 2003:168). It was popular to the audience and also gained acclaim from the critics because of its flexibility in recording reality. Nevertheless there were debates that the producers had already controlled the programme by selecting the diarists, and there were also problems of quality and legality.
New Observational Documentary: Emergence of Docusoap Docusoap is one form of the new observational documentary and one sub-genre of reality TV. It is a hybrid of documentary and soap-opera. It improves from serious documentary to emphasize on entertainment, especially everyday lives. ‘Developed in the UK in the mid-1990s, the docusoap enjoyed unprecedented success for roughly a four-year period (1996-2000)’ (Kilborn, 2003: 87). Docusoap combines documentary and drama. There are elements of narration, interviews and background music, and similar sequences as soap-opera.
Each episode has a certain title and focuses on character, personalities, plot or situation. Technological advances promote the development of new observational documentary. New technologies like lightweight cameras, ‘portable sound equipment’ and ‘non-linear editing system’ accelerate editing process with better quality and effect. Besides, financial benefits also attract producers to choose new technologies. ‘As Paul Hamann has commented, docusoaps already cost on average only a third of the price of the equivalent in light entertainment or sitcoms’ (Bruzzi, 2000: 77).
The entertainment factor of docusoap makes it popular with audience. Driving School ‘peaked at 12. 45 million’ viewers (Bruzzi, 2000: 86). It ‘focused on the trials and tribulations of people preparing for their driving test’ (Kilborn, 2003: 96). Compared to the core character of reality TV, docusoap is blamed to be less factual with aesthetic reconstruction. According to Bruzzi: The sequence most frequently cited is that in which Maureen Rees, on the eve of another attempt at her theory exam, wakes in the middle of the night and asks her husband Dave to test her on the Highway Code.
The sequence is a reconstruction, and Jeremy Gibson (head of BBC Television Features, Bristol) and others have gone on record exonerating themselves from blame, commenting that, having gleaned that Maureen did get up at night ghrough panic, it was perfectly legitimate to recreate such a sequence without the film crew having to camp out in her bedroom for an entire night. (Bruzzi, 2000: 87) The producers’ intervention revealed obvious dramatic skills, which aimed at telling a complete story. In any case, under these circumstances one can never expect a totally natural performance from the character with the presence of camera.