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Realism and television Essay

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Question : Discuss realism by considering a television program that has realistic qualities. In your discussion specifically refer to Chapter 14 of the textbook, ‘Documentary and “reality TV”‘, by Branston and Stafford (2006). Realism plays an important role in the success of a good television program. The ability to relate and appeal to the senses of the target audience is an essential characteristic of any media form. This essay explores how realism is perceived in television today with reference to both reality and documentary genres of television.

The remainder of the essay will present a case study of a television program which demonstrates realistic qualities. What is Realism? It has been argued that we are living in a ‘postdocumentary’ culture, a time of talk shows, reality t. v, game shows and the persuasion of celebrity (Branston, Stafford 2006: 455). When we refer to ‘realism’ within the context of television it conjures up a multitude of meanings. For example, realism may indicate that the program is ‘realistic’ because of the subject matter, like that of a documentary. Moreover, a television program could be considered ‘realistic’ because it features.

Unscripted ordinary people in contrived situations, like Big Brother. One thing is certain, realism, or the illusion of realism, is very prevalent in television today. Reality tv? Distorted Realism… Flick on the television during peak times on a week night and it’s pretty difficult to avoid reality television. From home makeovers to celebrity fit clubs, the popularity with ‘so called’ reality television is astounding. But is reality tv just another highly produced product of the culture industry? More often that not, these reality programs are highly constructed to attract viewers. As Andrejevic.

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questions, “Why is Reality tv pretending that it’s real, so that we may cannily believe it’s phony, when it accurately portrays the reality of contrivance in contemporary society? “(Andrejevic 2004). These programs are clearly not an accurate representation of how most people live. It seems the message of reality television is that ordinary people can become so significant that millions of people will watch them, and as a result, ordinary people are considered potential media stars. Ordinary people watch these programs, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on television (Reiss 2001).

This is evident by the large number of reality tv stars that have gone on to have careers in the media. For example, Elizabeth Hassleback from the first series of the reality tv program Survivor is now a co-host of the popular talk show in the US “The View”. ‘Reality tv’, definitely has it’s fair share of critics. It has been blamed of damaging our youth’s perception of what reality truly means, even going to the extent of accusing it of being and abusive and exploitative of children in shows like, ‘Wifeswap’ and ‘Trading Spouses’ (Schlessinger 2004).

The perception of what is fact and fiction in regards to television is no longer a clear margin (Study guide 9:5). Semiotic codes (study of signs) in television represent a kind of ‘language’, and we all learn how to decode these signs and symbols in to explain what we see (Herrman, 2000). With any luck, the viewers of these reality programs can distinguish what is true reality and not when they are watching these programs. Documentaries – The Art of Performing Just like news, documentaries are recognized as reproducing the truthful version of the story to the audience. With the popularity of the reality tv culture it has

been argued that these types of shows have tainted the significance of documentaries (Branston, Stafford 2006:. 455). Documentaries have the ability to showcase complex subject matter with an accurate and credible approach. It has been argued that a documentary is a “performative act whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming”(Bruzzi 2000:6). Moreover, documentaries portray a ‘real’ perspective according to the film maker themselves, just as reality tv, documentaries are constructed to a certain extent. In other words, the audience assumes the point of view from where the camera shooting.

Branston and Stafford suggest in the example of Micheal Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 where there were key issues that were not mentioned like the role of Israel, which in effect, persuades the audience in a certain position (Branston, Stafford 2006: 469). Of all the genres of television, documentaries still continue do the finest duty of relaying an accurate interpretation of ‘real-world’ issues with minimal construction. Case Study: “Intervention”(Mondays 9. 30am, Channel 115, Foxtel).

The television program which I have chosen to critique in relation to it’s realistic qualities is ‘Intervention’. It’s a powerful and transfixing US-based series in which people confront their addiction and seek a route to recovery. The series profiles individuals whose dependency on drugs, alcohol or other compulsive behavior has brought them to an all-time low and estranged them from their family and loved ones. The addicts featured in the series believe they have signed up to participate in a documentary on ‘addiction’. Each episode begins with a brief introduction to the subject, and then he or she is followed around by a camera crew.

The program ends with a surprise intervention that is staged in which they are confronted with a life-altering choice: rehabilitation or risk losing all contact with the loved ones who instigated the intervention. Often, other tactics are used to persuade the addicted person into treatment, which vary depending on the situation. Interviews with the subject, as well as family members or friends who have agreed to participate, are interspersed throughout. The Intervention falls under the reality tv genre of television and can be described as an ‘information programme’, as it uses true stories to educate the audience on the subject matter (Branston, Stafford 2006:474).

The show has more the feel of a documentary than a reality TV program, although predominately factual there a certain aspects of the program that are clearly constructed. The producers and creators of the program make the rules, they create the setting, they film it according to specific guidelines as to what they think are going to provide good television. So Why Is ‘Intervention’ So Realistic? There are a number of characteristics that this television program possesses which contributes in creating a sense of realism for the viewer: 1).

Subject Matter ‘Intervention’ is the dramatic and disturbing insight into the day in the life of an addict that features graphic footage of addicts shooting up on television has prompted some controversy. “It makes prime-time sport of vulnerable, desperate people and their spiral to the bottom,” wrote Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe. All though it’s ugly to watch, unfortunately the reality of addiction and the dysfunction it creates is very real for many families. Most viewers would know someone who it has been impacted by the power of addiction. According to Addictionintervention. com, the interventions that are staged on the series represent a realistic and account of what actually takes place during a professional intervention.

http://www. addictionintervention. com/intervention/interventiontv_response. asp 2) Drama-documentary ‘Intervention’ series utilizes a ‘drama-documentary’ style which combines elements of documentary and drama (Branston, Stafftord 2006:456). This hybrid genre produces a very authentic sense of reality for the viewer, absent are the contrivances of most reality shows.

Moreover, the participants of the show are ordinary people with real addictions, there are no million dollar prizes, no mansions, no bachelors, or games. According to the series, millions of people struggle with addiction, so the subject matter is a very real problem existing in society. There are no actors or re enactments, these are ‘real’ people going about their life. ‘Intervention’ demonstrates the characteristics of a documentary by presenting the strict facts of the event but also the program has the ability to raise the larger issues associated with addiction, such as family disintegration. Unfortunately the stories that are told are true, it’s something that we would like to believe does not exist in this world, but we all know that it does.

3) Camera Angles The series is shot in a documentary-style, which makes it less refined and more credible (Branston, Stafford 2006:458). The participants bring an honesty and rawness to the show that supersedes the blatant expectations that are all too common to reality programming. The unrehearsed reaction to the intervention from the addict is completely unpredictable. Sometimes the addict agrees to the treatment but more often than not the addict runs away, so without warning the production crew are unexpectedly running down the street.

The scrabbling footage adds to the authenticity and legitimacy of the program (Branston, Stafford 2006: 458). 4) Unscripted Narratives ‘Intervention” does not use a narrator, instead, the subject and his loved ones tell the story, with occasional text commentary, which contributes to the realism. The leading characters of the program are ‘ordinary’ people from working class backgrounds, which is very relatable to a broad audience (Branston, Stafford 2006:460).

The unscripted narratives between the addicts and their families generate a sense of normalcy, quite often they have to bleep out language when arguments get heated. The music is very limited in the program, there is some intense music just before the intervention which makes for an element of drama. 5) Format The ‘Intervention’ series, has the identical structure in each program. The first half hour profiles the individual, the next 20 minutes focuses on the intervention itself, the last 10 minutes focuses on the follow-up of the individual.

There is no set, no staging, the program is filmed on location, meaning where ever the individual lives. The program is filmed in the home of the individual and the intervention, usually takes place at a nearby hotel. The fact that the program could be filmed anywhere is a factor in producing a sense of realism. 5) Not Always a Happy Ending The ‘Intervention’ program does not always have a happy ending, which contributes in creating a sense of honesty for the audience. In a recent episode of ‘Intervention’, the featured addict did agree to go to a rehabilitation facility but was kicked out not long after for breaking the rules. Unfortunately he went back to living on the streets and still struggling with his drug addiction and still estranged from his family (Intervention, aired 20/4/2007, 10pm,A&E channel).

This program reiterates that sometimes real life is not pretty, and some situations cannot be resolved in a 60 minute episode. Although the ‘Intervention’ program is a cutting edge and controversial, the fact of the matter is, addiction is a very real issue in today’s society. According to the National Drug Strategy, the tangible social costs of drug use in Australia were estimated to be $18. 3 billion from in 1998-99. With these statistics like this, addiction should be a matter certainly worthy of attention.

(http://www. aihw. gov. au/publications/phe/sdua04/sdua04. pdf) In conclusion, it’s apparent that there are still some programs on television that are able to give a ‘realistic’ insight into certain subject matters. After all, the television is our interaction with the outside world, media should continue to focus attention on these social problems to generate awareness and education with this type of programming.


Andrejevic, Mark ‘Reality TV:The Work of Being Watched’ Lanham MD: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004 1-20 Branston, G. and Stafford, R. , 2006. ‘Documentary & ‘Reality tv’, in The Media Student’s Book, 4th ed. , Routledge, Abingdon, UK, and New York, pp. 455-478 Herrmann, Stefan ‘Do we learn to ‘read’ television like a kind of ‘language’? May 2000http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Students/sfh9901. html Reiss S, Wiltz J ‘Why America loves reality TV’ – Feature – Brief ArticlePsychology Today, Sept-Oct, 2001 http://findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_m1175/is_5_34/ai_82261905 Schlessinger, L ‘Realism in family television? ‘ October 27, 2004 http://www. worldnetdaily. com/news/article. asp? ARTICLE_ID=41125.

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