A Skinny Take: Reality Television
When Big Brother first aired on British television screens ten years ago, it caused such a stir that once it was over, the landscape of television had changed forever. It was an instant sensation: the public were captivated, the tabloid press infatuated, and averaging 4.5m viewers a night, advertisers were laughing whilst the show’s producers rolled in baths of cash. Everyone was a winner.
Or so it seemed on the surface. Behind the scenes there was a darker narrative playing out: there had been a shift in the boundaries of entertainment and this, for many, was troubling. Critics of the show derided its voyeurism, calling it “car-crash television” and “lowest common denominator entertainment”. But the producers were indifferent. Audience figures were their main concern; they cared little for cultural merit or artistic integrity. “You may not think it's a good thing” said Tim Hincks, the Chief Executive of the show’s production company Endemol, “but it changed the way we make TV".
What Hincks failed to acknowledge, though, was that change is not always desirable or progressive. Big Brother satisfied advertisers, production company executives and hundreds of lowbrow, half-witted celebrity magazine editors in the short-term – but what about its effect, socially and culturally, in the long term?
It has certainly had a large part to play in the slow, festering degradation of popular culture over the course of the last decade. The celebrity magazines that clog the shelves of newsagents everywhere; the t-shirts adorned with slogans like “born to be famous” – Big Brother has cultivated a society obsessed with fame, and a variant of it that is viewed as an end in itself: talent is no longer part of the equation.
But Big Brother has now lost the core if its audience and this year’s series will be its last. No more is it viewed as a sensation by the generation who grew up and grew bored of the same old formula churned out like an annual dose of déjà vu. The audience has moved on, and now craves a new kind of reality: something more extreme and unconstrained by the rules and regulations of the Big Brother house.
Arguments and bickering will no longer suffice – the audience wants violence, desolation and pure tragedy. BBC ‘docudrama’ The Scheme is thus a natural progression in the evolution (rather, de-evolution) of reality television. A show that depicts the barren struggles of individuals living on a run-down housing estate in Kilmarnock, The Scheme is an intravenous injection of unadulterated, sordid voyeurism. Watch as a father cries upon hearing the news that his son is being sent to jail, be shocked as a pregnant girl is attacked outside her home, feel pity for the man struggling with heroin addiction, and shake your head condescendingly as a mother neglects the best interests of her five-year-old daughter. And then turn off the television and forget about it all. “It’s only television,” you can pretend to yourself, “it’s only entertainment.”