Time To Go: Reality TV Formats and National Identity

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Ahhh, Reality TV…. Blocks are sky high, celebrities splash, bake offs are great, Masterchefs are professionals, moles are 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 are now the new 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.

TV formats are not a new idea. Adapting ideas for a unique national viewpoint is as old as the bible itself. Some TV show formats are more closed and tightly controlled than others. Early reality show formats such as ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ and ‘The Weakest Link’ were very specific with how their shows run.

Currently ‘The Voice’ is an example where the format of the show is very similar in all markets. All shows have almost identical sets, a focus on celebrity judges, and the very American values of rebirth and reinvention. The biggest difference to be found between the American Version and the Australian Version is that, just like our flushing toilets, our chairs spin around the opposite way.

This type of format is now rare, as a more open view to the adaptation of the local version of reality shows is more prevalent.

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.

The three parts are made up of 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 and analysing the cultural codes 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.

With it’s 15th season in 2013, the American version of Big Brother started off in 2000 and it’s one of the texts that has most deviated away from the original formatting. With it’s home on commercial network CBS, Season one stayed close to international tropes of the show where housemates are voted off one by one by the viewers. This backfired when viewers voted off any remotely interesting characters.  Whether CBS was being overly cautious or accurately reflected how the audience would react to anything controversial, it demonstrated that a reality show needs to be mindful of what viewers in different countries want, but also keeping the factors that make the show work in the first place.

Following a negative critical and commercial reaction against the show, season two drastically changed the show structure, where a group of contestants, now called ‘houseguests’, compete by voting each other off and being the last houseguest remaining.

If this format sounds familiar, it’s because it is basically ‘survivor in a house’. Born from a history of quiz shows and Jerry Springer, this format is what we see in the US and the Canadian versions of the show now, and reflects an important social value of America that has been prevalent since The Great Gatsby and before – the chance of rebirth, that anybody can reinvent themselves if they just work hard enough. This idea of individual entrepreneurialism and the possibilities of self-transformation pervade much of American media texts, including their reality shows. Makeover shows such as The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover give the chance of individual perfectibility, the idea that it’s acceptable for Gordon Ramsey to yell at you to break you down, as it means you are able to build yourself back up again.

This social value is deeply embedded into the American Big Brother format. The show screens at primetime three times a week, each show having a major piece of the competition in it, the weekly eviction, the Head of House competition and the Power of Veto competition. Although the competitions played are usually silly, they are taken by the show as completely serious. In fact, much of the syntax used by the contestants of the show surrounds the competition aspect of it. As with Survivor, the idea of alliances is a major part of the vocabulary of the text and much of the conversations and to-camera interviews seen has to do with gameplay elements.

Most of the documentary devices are completely stripped out as all segments are about power plays, alliances and show-mances. Events are not explained through a third person voiceover but by the game players in to-camera post game analysis over dramatic music, although I’m not sure why they need to yell.

Given the strong competitive representations of the show the evictions are similarly dramatic. Host Julie Chen (nicknamed “Chen-Bot” by fans of the show) is playing the role of war journalist, with a cold face, giving us just the facts. The studio audience is small and subdued, this is not a celebration but a commiseration.

This is the eviction of Nick in last year’s season, who was blindsided out of the game by an alliance. You’ll notice that the eviction happen very quickly, and apart from Nick’s showman partner, unemotional. Evictions here are strictly business. It’s straight out the door and into the arms of a disappointed julie.

This specific season of Big Brother was marred by controversy. Texas contestant Aaryn (along with other contestants) was the centre of accusations of racial and homosexual slurs against other contestants. Originally not shown on the actual show, this arose from viewers who watch the “live feeds” – a premium service where fans of the show can watch a live broadcast of going ons of the ‘houseguests via feeds over the internet.

CBS aired a segment about Aaryn’s remarks when they decided it was affecting the “game”. on the July 7th episode. Aaryn’s remarks made national headlines, causing many viewers to demand that Aaryn be kicked out or the whole show to be taken off air. This was a time where America had just come out of another racial controversy just a month before where cooking show host Paula Deen was accused of making racist remarks in a court deposition.

This clip is from the next episode, where Aaryn’s apparent racist attitudes gets another segment. Whilst watching this clip notice how the story of Aaryn is framed only how it will effect her game – indicating that the worse part of her racist remarks seems to be that it may cost her the prize money. The representation of Aaryn here is interesting. The weeks prior – Aaryn enjoyed a somewhat positive representation on the show as one of the major players of the game. Now, the tables have turned – and in a heavily edited segment, Aaryn is represented as flippant to her remarks – the fact that she is surrounded in white doesn’t quite help either.

Whilst the American version of Big Brother is largely about it’s competition aspects, The UK version has other things on it’s mind. As with many other British reality shows, the UK Big Brother series concerns values of class and taste.

Uk Big Brother started in 2000, and up until 2010 was on the commercially operated yet publicly owned channel 4. The format of UK Big Brother is much different to the US version – mostly due to the fact that the viewers still vote out contestants via a poll.

Class placement and belonging are major values within the UK series. Chosen housemates are often from a range of class backgrounds, with a mix of old and new money.  It can be seen as quite a harsh or mean show. Unedited swearing is common in episodes and contestants are allowed to smoke on set. The producers cast for scandal, putting in self confessed ‘sugar daddies’, cougars, ladies of leisure and gay policemen.

This can create a large sense of ‘otherness’ with the show. They are characters that the audience are able to laugh at because they are not ‘us’. But It is if these characters show a ‘down to earth’ quality that the audience will back them. Previous winners of UKBB includes two transsexuals, various glamour models and someone who has tourette’s syndrome.

An example from last year’s season is shown in the character of Gina. When introduced in her VT at the start of the seasom, Gina is positioned as an upper class snob, obsessed with money and  clearly out of touch with reality.

Gina received boos when entering the house, but ultimately got redemption by the end of the season. Gina was able to turn around her portrayal by interacting positively with other housemates and ended up becoming one of the crowd favourites and coming in at third place on the show.

The syntax of the show is quite different from America’s version. Like Australia when it is said someone is ‘playing the game’ it has a negative connotation – meaning that the character is not being their true self on the show. And while the idea of transformation is present, it is seen only as positive when it is a shared experience within the group – characters can only learn something about themselves through the other characters on the show. When the discourse in the dialogue turns to individual transformation – such as using the show to spring board into another career like many have done. This is seen as a negative attribute – an offset of not being ‘real’ or down to earth  enough.

Amongst all this, UK Big Brother is the format that relishes in performance the most. Constructed through a task or not, contestants feel it is their duty to bluntly point out their disagreements with each other as this is an expected trope of the show. The audience plays along as well, quickly choosing heroes and villains which will continue in the tabloid newspapers. UK Big Brother plays out like a televised pantomime.

The differences don’t just come from the values of English society but also the style and form of the show. A publicly owned station, channel 4 has a remit which asks of the station to create innovative programs that pushes boundaries. The fact that the daily show airs at 10pm is also an important factor as it allows far racier content that CBS or channel 9 could ever dream. Daily shows are an hour long, which gives the show more time to concentrate on personalities of the characters and less on the show’s mechanics.

This documentary approach also comes out of the documentary history of the UK. Daily shows are peppered with a voice over narration and time displays which play on this, often highlighting unimportant aspects of the day.

The 2013 season of UKBB, subtitlted ‘Secrets and Lies’ was significant for a few reasons, including the portrayal of contestant Hazel O’Sullivan a glamour model who was shown flirting with professional boxer Daley. Throughout the season, Daley and Hazel are shown flirting even though Daley was in a relationship outside of the show.

Hazel was represented as the instigator as producers would continue to show other contestants comment on Hazel’s actions, admonishing them because Daley had a girlfriend. The general UK public agreed, with people yelling out ‘Homewrecker Hazel’ during the live eviction shows.

Hazel’s eviction highlights the pantomime aspects of the text. Played to a larger, chanting audience, evicted contestants are often jeered or booed if they are unpopular as they walk down the catwalk and pose for the paparazzi. The UK Big Brother host takes on the role of an amused ringleader, relishing in what they have created.

Another part of this season was the role reversal of the character of ‘Wolfy’. Based on her opening night introduction VT and the first week of house footage, Wolfy was the crowd favourite and looked to be a top contender to win the show. However, characters can turn on a dime on Big Brother, and the representation of Wolfy very quickly went from Hero to Villain. 

Contestants are given an indication of their popularity outside of the house by the way the studio audience cheers or boos them when Emma Willis crosses live to the house for eviction announcements. Wolfy received large cheers from the audience during the first eviction episode. This lift of ego changed how Wolfy acted in the house and ultimately how she was portrayed on the show. 

Wolfy began stating how she thought she was going to win the show, which was represented as her being ‘arrogant’. The show also started up-playing Wolfy’s  more vulgar habits such as spitting which reflected a more negative tone in her footage. This all culminates to her receiving large boos from the audience upon her eviction, her transformation complete.

This clip from Wolfy’s eviction episode shows just how negative her representation had become by the end. It also serves to highlight the difference between the US and UK versions of the show. Wolfy is being punished on the show for something that would be celebrated on the US version of the show.

As Australian viewers are exposed to both US and British styles of reality tv, it’s no surprise that we tend to blend both styles, keeping whatever is most likely to appeal to local audiences.

Australian Big Brother, starting in 2001 and spending most of it’s time on youth orientated station channel 10, shows many of the usual Australian values in reality shows – and established the tropes for many of them. Concerns of cultural cringe surround the discourse of the show but within the text plays out narratives concerning tall poppy syndrome, aspects of fairness and mateship.

Like the British show, the Australian version of Big Brother tends to have a documentary approach, documenting what happens as though it just happened to be unfolding in front of it. Also like the British, Australia can’t seem to resist giving the show a voice over narration – which often directs the viewer to the social value inherent in the text.

But what makes a reality show essentially Australian is the attitudes of both those participating in the shows and those watching it. For instance, early in the sixth season of Big Brother, there was a distrust of contestant Tim Brunero, a journalist who seemed to be a little too smart for his housemates. It tapped into the anti-intellectualism vein in Australia, where clever people are generally not to be trusted.

However, once it was perceived that the rest of the house was ganging up on him, the national characteristic of fairness kicked in with housemates and viewers. Once Tim was seen as the under-dog he was rallied around and lifting him to runner up of the season.

The winner of Big Brother often displays the dominant values of the production, and whilst the US winners are the ‘game players’ and the UK winners are the ‘most entertaining’ the values of winners in Australia have been routinely uniform. As with most Australian reality show winners, Big Brother winners must be shown as down to earth, show a quality of fairness show a strong sense of mateship with someone else in the house and is also a larriken.

The structure and storytelling tropes of the show are much more similar to Britain. Like Britain, many storylines revolve around how ‘real’ contestants are being in the house. Whilst American Big Brother revels in the idea of the contestant’s on screen identities who may shift to fit the logistics of the game, Australia’s format has a large problem with this idea. Last year’s season saw the character of Estelle under close scrutiny because of her apparent multiple personalities, creating a feeling of distrust about her because it’s going against ideals of the simple, easy to understand and down to earth Australian.

The last two seasons, 2012 and 2013, have been on the more family friendly Channel 9. This has created more family friendly narratives on the show, although the winners have reflected more alternative values than previous winners. 2013 winner Tim has been the biggest openly ‘game player’ winner that Australia has had, but still falling into the character trope of the “Aussie Larriken”.

What becomes clear when juxtaposing other formats against the Australian Big Brother is just how important the idea of mateship is in our version of the show. Storylines often revolve around the contestants as a group – often just showing them celebrating together or rallying around one their own. Often the character of Big Brother himself has to be represented as the villain to create some drama in the show.

For instance this clip from last year’s season exemplifies this idea. Much of this episode revolved around the fact that it was contestant Ben’s birthday and he doesn’t get a birthday party. The other contestants surround Ben to support him through this cruel injustice – it’s seen as Big Brother not being ‘fair’, fairness being one of the most important values in Big Brother Australia. 

The 2013 Australian season was probably most famous for the character of Tully. Tully, a self proclaimed “social media strategist” was well known as being a “sook”, being overly emotional on the show and also for being in a relationship on the show with Drew, even though she had a girlfriend on the outside world.

Tully’s evictions show how Australian evictions are structured less like the British pantomime and more like a celebration. Audiences are large but are under strict instructions not to boo. Australian hosts often fit a mother figure, prizes are given out and show highlights are always positive. The eviction shows feel like a highly produced 21st birthday party.

Compared to other countries, Australia’s evictions are long and hyper-emotional. In this next clip watch how long it takes for Tully to actually leave the house as she must first hug everyone twice as we get close-ups on all the other contestants crying. 

Whilst Big Brother is just one example there are plenty of other reality shows that can make a great comparison for values. Masterchef is another great example where our local version thrives on all contestants having a fair go and supportive judges, the American version is full of testosterone and competition, contestants will give each other nasty comments to each other and wish them out and judge Gordon Ramsy is quick to point out how wrong you have it.

Wife Swap USA, Britain and Australia again show clear value structures. The British version is obsessed with class, the American version turns the show into a competition. There are many others, all ready for students to explore. Mostly in our classrooms values are taught through the passage of time but not space. Show formats allow students to clearly explore discourses of winners and fairness through accessible texts that help them see the current values Australian text hold that may not have been easily seen without clear contrast of similar texts.

It looks like the Chen-Bot has evicted me, so let me say that It has been real, and I feel like I have learned a lot about myself throughout this once in a lifetime experience. I’d just like to say that I love you all and I wouldn’t change a thing.

References

Lewis, T. 2008. Changing rooms, biggest losers and backyard blitzes: A history of makeover television in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22 (4), pp. 447-458.

Moran, A. 2009. Global franchising, local customizing: The cultural economy of TV program formats.Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 23 (2), pp. 115-125.

Murphy, K. 2006. TV land. Milton, Qld.: John Wiley & Sons.

Murray, S. and Ouellette, L. 2004. Reality TV. New York: New York University Press.

Price, E. 2010. Reinforcing the myth: Constructing Australian identity in ‘reality TV’. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24 (3), pp. 451-459.

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