Ahh, 2013. It was a magical time for Australian television where Blocks were sky high, celebrities splashed, bake-offs were great, Masterchefs were professionals, moles were traiters and Big Brother twists. Welcome to the post boom reality show age. Long after we were told many times that the reality show format was a fad and would die out we are still living in a world of ‘event television’.
Ubiquitous coverage and live specials push reality shows to the top of the ratings every week. Many write off reality shows for being too homogenous. It’s easy to see shows that have been brought in from other countries as not truly meeting the needs of an Australian audience.
In actuality, reality show formats allow for an idiosyncratic perspective into our, and other countries national identity and values and that formatting licences of shows like Big Brother allow us to clearly outline what each country can uniquely bring to it. The fractured nature of what is now considered to be primetime television now makes dominant values in our texts more obscure. It is reality television that is aiming to speak to a national audience rather than a specific one. Reality formats don’t mark the end of local programming, but is proof of the endurance of it.
Reality TV contestants in some ways has taken over other celebrities in people’s water cooler talk. Claudia Weber in ‘Reality TV Shows and the Making of the New Celebrity’, describes contemporary celebrity culture as characterised by a type of fast-tracking to popularity, that somebody can go from an everyday person to a celebrity hero or villain very quickly and that this idea is due to the tropes of Reality TV shows which by their very nature celebrate the “normal”.
Reality TV contestants and their narratives as the new celebrity are therefore the ones that we as a society ‘gossip’ about, an important role we use to define our values. The narratives that ‘stick’ in a culture tend to be the ones that address the important battles of issues and values at the time. As Henry Jenkins explains, reality TV is now the thing that we share in common, so the contestants are what we gossip about are a vehicle that we use to share values with each other about central issues.
Whilst some reality TV shows can be quite similar in format between different countries, other shows that have a more open formatting structure allows for a more nationalistic reading of it through studying the linguistic, intertextual and cultural codes within the text. Through these we are able to see the values of the producers who created the show as well as the audience for who it is created for.
The show Big Brother is a good example. Originally from Denmark in 1999, the premise of the show is simple: A group of strangers live in a house that is closed off from the outside world and are constantly monitored by television cameras. Contestants are regularly voted off until there is 1 winner. The format of the show remains open to the over 40 countries that have run their own version, sometimes creating very different shows.
Big Brother is an interesting case study, as unlike similar shows such as Survivor, Big Brother is produced and broadcast as it is being filmed. As Regan Fox, media professor and previous Big Brother US housemate explains, constructing narratives on the set of Big Brother is challenging as they do not know the outcome of the game or how power relations in the game will change week by week. in a series of Survivor, producers know who the main characters are at the end of the series and can therefore create a narrative throughout the season to match outcomes. On Big Brother, producers can only anticipate how the competition might unfold. This unsuredness often leads to drastic changes of representation on the show. People that were villains one week may end up being heroes the next, and vice versa.
To look at these different ways of creating the same show for different audiences, it’s useful to look at it through a three part analysis that has been used in the past to analyse how a newspaper may change it’s formatting for another culture.
- Style and Form analysis, where we look at how the text is constructed from the staging and shooting to the organisation and storytelling inherent in the text.
- Intertextual analysis has us look at the text within the broader television industry and established genres within them.
- Cultural codes analysis sees how the social values of the time and place of production has an effect on the local text.
It’s hard to study any of these in complete isolation from each other, all three are closely connected.