Rachel Helen Smith explores the Big Brother phenomenon and Reality TV.
Twenty-first century television culture burst onto the screen at 9pm on Tuesday 18th July 2000. Viewers who switched their televisions to Channel 4 witnessed a close-up shot of an unblinking human eye. Then a flashing montage of stills: security cameras, televisions screens, a dormitory bedroom, someone in a toilet cubicle, the sky. And the slogan: 'Ten people. One winner. You decide.' The eye blinked. Big Brother had landed.
The premise of Big Brother was innovative but simple. Ten strangers volunteered to live in a communal house for two months, isolated from the outside world and subject to comprehensive round-the-clock surveillance. Footage of their every move was streamed live online. Highlights from each day, along with recordings of their private confessionals in the 'diary room', were also shown in a heavily edited episode each evening. All that these 'housemates' had to do was to complete outlandish tasks set by the producers in order to earn their food budget.
'Ten people. One winner. You decide.'
They were also asked to privately nominate two people to leave the house each week. The housemates receiving the most nominations were put to a public phone vote, with viewers deciding who would be 'evicted'. The concept was a hit. The show won an impressive ratings, a BAFTA Innovation Award, and there have now been around 30 UK series, including the spin-off series Celebrity Big Brother. It also introduced us to one of the key cultural phenomena of the noughties: reality TV.
Soon TV screens across the country were filled with a stream of reality shows like Survivor in which contestants had to compete for survival. Alongside them were a range of new fly-on-the-wall programmes like The Family. Some of these, such as Wife Swap, were given a twist: participants were challenged to live one another's realities. Yet more shows asked people to reveal the dirty, dowdy, and disorganised details of their lives in exchange for transformative expert advice on fashion, cleaning and parenting.
The Weakest Link, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and other traditional game and quiz shows continued to thrive because of the ordinary folk who appeared as contestants. Talent shows like Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Pop Idol and The X Factor introduced an added element of spectacle. The chance of fame was also offered to dancers (Strictly Come Dancing), chefs (Hell's Kitchen), romantics (The Bachelor), would-be business moguls (The Apprentice) and wannabe supermodels (Top Model). Part of the appeal was the cruel judges, people like Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, Lord Alan Sugar and Craig Revel Horwood, who deliver tactless appraisals of the contestants.
'reality' shows blurred the distinction between reality and fiction
With real people being given so much time on the airwaves, celebrities had to fight for exposure. They appeared in I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! or created shows of their own, exemplified by Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Docusoaps like The Hills and The Only Way is Essex fought back, creating new stars by simulating real-life situations. These 'reality' shows blurred the distinction between reality and fiction. Viewers suspect that the episodes are scripted, whilst their stars seem to be both actors and characters seamlessly merged into one.
Discussions of reality were not limited to shows that advertised themselves as reality TV; they invaded every area of programming. Documentary films have thrived, both on the small screen and in the cinema. David Attenborough has been particularly successful, alongside a new format of documentaries that included Airport and Don't Tell the Bride. Reality was even parodied by mockumentaries like The Office and Twenty Twelve. Comedian Peter Kay neatly summarised the array of reality shows with the title of his parodic programme: Britain's Got The Pop Factor ... And Possibly A New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly On Ice. The obsession with reality was taking over.
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The name 'reality TV' is misleading. None of these programmes present us with pure reality; they are all unavoidably distanced from it by perspective and interpretation. Instead, they variously observe, reveal, challenge, transform, exchange, mask, edit, create, and perform reality. So twenty-first century viewers are faced with a new and daunting question – just how much reality is there to be found in reality TV? We now have to judge not just the contents of the programmes, but the programmes themselves. We find ourselves wondering about the techniques of scripting, production, and editing. Are these people actors? Are the shots genuine? Is the dialogue scripted? Reality TV shows don't make our task easy, evading our questions.
what might Christians discover if we approach these shows with our brains turned on?
With all these questions being posed, it's surprising that reality TV is often described as a sensational, voyeuristic, mind-numbing distraction. Worst of all, critics claim, reality TV is 'take your brain out' television: watching it is rotting our minds, making us more stupid and less attentive, more forgetful and less imaginative. Even fans of reality TV describe the genre as the ultimate example of "dumbing down" and many call it a "guilty pleasure". According to Elle magazine, if you want to enjoy it, you simply have to disengage your brain and "consume without question". But what might Christians discover if we approach these shows with our brains turned on? What could we uncover about the values, dreams, and concerns of our society if we think whilst we consume? What connections might we find with other TV shows, films and books? What can we learn from them about the way our society understands the concepts of reality, authenticity, and honesty?
Big Brother became immensely popular because it seemed to offer a slice of real life, observed from an objective and innocent standpoint. There was no script, and interactions played out in real time, so nobody knew exactly what would happen. Even more excitingly, the participants were untrained citizens rather than actors. These were people that we could relate to and associate ourselves with. By watching the housemates eat, sleep, chat, and cook, we began to feel that they were a part of our everyday lives. We could also become a part of theirs, by voting to evict or save whoever we wished. Big Brother was personal and emotive. We were drawn in to the programme – and even became addicted – largely because we felt connected to the housemates.
Some viewers even developed illusory one-way relationships with the housemates. These were relationships that could be switched on and off. We could even pause, rewind, delete or record them. We had complete control, and with this control came the feeling of safety. Gone were the complications of real-life relationships, and if we became bored or annoyed, we could simply move on by changing the channel.
Big Brother's popularity spoke out against loneliness and isolation
Big Brother did more than just emulate reality. It also revealed an important truth – that at our core, we long for interaction with others. Big Brother offered us personal stories and we watched it because want to understand our fellow human beings, to relate to them and connect with them. Its popularity may have waned in recent years, but at one time this style of reality TV posed a challenge to a society in which individualism and self-sufficiency reign; its popularity spoke out against loneliness and isolation.
Created for community
Humanity's innate desire for relationship is no surprise: according to the Bible, we are created for community. From the moment he made humans, God declared, "it is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). We were always intended to live in relationship, both with God and with each other. Throughout history, God's followers have proclaimed the same message: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" (Psalm 133:1).
Living in unity is not always easy. We come into conflict with those around us. We quarrel and fight because our own desires are at war within us (James 4:1). We're tempted to think we'd be better off alone. But the Bible urges us not to give up: "let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
living in unity is a daily struggle in a fallen world
Big Brother is an unnatural set-up in which individuals are chosen for their incompatible personalities. As such, it does not provide a model for the kind of encouraging community that the Bible describes. However, it does reflect the fact that living in unity is a daily struggle in a fallen world. The people it presents us with are real, which is to say that they are not perfect – they have their own weaknesses and demons, fears and flaws. They suffer from a whole host of emotional problems. They're moody and vulnerable. They're difficult to live with. But they're also feisty and resilient. They have a sense of humour and they're big hearted. They are, in fact, just the kind of people you find in everyday life. People just like us.
So what lessons did the early series of Big Brother offer about dealing with real people who live in the real world?
Big Brother's first lesson in community living came courtesy of Nick Bateman, a football-loving stockbroker who appeared in Series One. Five weeks in, the other housemates became suspicious that Nick was lying to them. They believed that he was cheating by using secret notes to influence nominations – something which was strictly forbidden by the rules of the show. When they confronted him, Nick was forced to make a public confession. He visited the diary room to admit: "I've made a mistake."
Nick seemed keen for the group's forgiveness, crying and saying "people do make mistakes". But it was too late for second chances. The housemates were furious – Big Brother was a 'reality' show, but Nick had been anything but real with them. Series winner Craig blasted him with disappointment and hurt: "You made me look a fool. I told Big Brother, five million people, my family and friends that I think you are a genuine guy."
The producers asked Nick leave the house, news that made the front page of almost every daily paper. On Thursday 17th August 2000, six million viewers tuned in at midnight to watch him depart. The media coverage vilified him as 'Nasty Nick' and his actions prompted a national outcry. However, by rapidly becoming a figure the nation loved to hate, Nick went on to profit from his devilish reputation. He published a book, hosted several television and radio shows, and was eventually invited back for the series Ultimate Big Brother. This time around, the media praised his improved behaviour, jokingly re-naming him 'Not So Nasty Nick'.
when it came to reality TV, just how much full-frontal honesty could we stomach?
Nick wasn't the only cheat on trial in the court of culture. There was also Charles Ingram, 'the coughing major' who won a million pounds on the game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? The mood in the studio was jubilant on the night that he won, but soon afterwards he was accused of cheating, and the nation rapidly turned against him. When he continued to deny allegations from the press and the court over the years that followed, it only enraged people further. In 2007 Ingram claimed, "My family has been subject to about 60 acts of assault, aggression, abuse and vandalism over the last five years." The strength of this public reaction was proof that, for twenty-first century viewers, lying is something to be taken seriously.
By contrast, we celebrated instances of honesty and integrity. The hugely successful film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) was inspired by the Ingram scandal. Based on the novel Q&A (2005), it tells the story of an adolescent boy who is wrongly accused of cheating on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The film ends on a triumphant note, as he is eventually proved to be honest. The feel-good finale is set to a catchy, up-beat song and the cast perform a Bollywood-esque dance. The song soon became a smash hit in clubs, with people mimicking the dance routine. Truthfulness had finally triumphed and the celebrations were infectious. But when it came to reality TV, just how much full-frontal honesty could we stomach?
Big Brother contestant Jade Goody first became known for her 'kebab belly' – which she showed to the world after losing a game of strip poker – and her entertainingly ignorant questions: Did Sherlock Holmes invent toilets? Does Greece have its own moon? Isn't East Angular abroad? And who is Heinzstein? It was a dubious start to a career that saw her star in numerous spin-off television series. Even more surprisingly, she would also release two perfumes, five fitness DVDs, three books, and open two beauty salons.
But when Jade stepped through the doors of the Big Brother house in 2002, this was all in the future. She was simply a gobby dental nurse from Bermondsey – bubbly, talkative, and larger-than-life. She claimed that as a result of her troubled childhood, she had developed strong personality traits, which included hatred of falsehood. Consequently, she was frank, outspoken, and down-to-earth; for good or ill, she 'let it all hang out'. She later claimed that she wanted to be remembered "as the person who let everybody see every single side of her and they either liked her or they didn't".
Her candid approach was disparaged by the viewing public and the media branded her 'Miss Piggy'. None of it stopped her from becoming famous – and infamous – after her stint on Big Brother came to an end. She appeared on several other reality shows, including the Indian equivalent of Big Brother, Bigg Boss, in 2008.
I've lived in front of the cameras and maybe I'll die in front of them.
- Jade Goody
Two days after entering the Bigg Boss house she was called into the diary room. Live on air, her doctor informed her that she was suffering from terminal cervical cancer. Watching a young woman receive her death sentence on live television made the voyeurism of the programme repulsive, yet viewers were morbidly curious to watch what would happen. Jade herself joked, "I've lived in front of the cameras and maybe I'll die in front of them."
Jade's popularity surged after her diagnosis. As a vulnerable victim, her habit of frank talking and honesty were an asset. She was praised for drawing attention to the cause of cervical cancer and the subsequent rise in the demand for screenings was branded 'the Jade Goody effect'. She even confessed Christian faith, began reading the Bible, and was christened – along with her sons – in her hospital bed. The explosion of communal grief at her tragic death prompted comparisons with Princess Diana. In the end, Jade was praised for being outspoken, outrageous, and always utterly herself.
Reality TV communicated a clear message: honesty is paramount. From Big Brother to Slumdog Millionaire, popular culture seemed to be persistently proclaiming that we valued truth-telling. This led British society to develop a strong animosity towards liars and cheats. The logical extension, as we will see, was that truth-telling became an absolute and unconditional good, regardless of its tone or context.
The thinking Christian viewer might see the moral consensus that 'honesty is the best policy' as proof of humanity's God-given desire for truth. We know that humans are made in the image of God, who does not – and cannot – lie (Hebrews 6:18). He designed us to speak the truth with humility, gentleness, patience, and love (Ephesians 4:15). It is therefore natural that we should recoil from duplicity and artifice, however small the lie. In fact, Jesus taught that, "one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much" (Luke 16:10).
However, we also know that humans, in our fallen state, are often dishonest. In his Psalms, King David claimed, "all mankind are liars" (Psalm 116:11). We live with a striking double standard: whilst we demand honesty of others, we all lie and exaggerate for our own gain. Today many popular psychologists confirm that "most people seem to feel lying in some circumstances is not only acceptable but desirable."
truth-telling became an absolute and unconditional good
Lying is something that angers God (Proverbs 6:16-19, Proverbs 12:22). It also causes conflict between people, for an unbridled tongue is "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8). We're told that we should be "slow to speak" (James 1:19) and only say what is "good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29).
How can we celebrate complete honesty whilst promoting compassion and gentleness? How can we be truthful with people whilst following the instruction to "let your speech always be gracious" (Colossians 4:6)? Jesus offers a model of sharp honesty combined with loving acceptance. His clear judgements contain no condemnation (John 8:1-11). Christians need to follow his lead if we are to be heard amongst the roar of humorous but hurtful judgements emanating from the TV screen.
Popular culture was relentless in its message that 'honesty is the best policy', resulting in the near-collapse of the distinction between the public and private spheres. All manner of intimate details about people's lives were now suitable fodder for entertainment, and we didn't need investigative journalists to discover them – people offered them freely.
Celebrity biographies became bestsellers as stars clamoured to reveal the truth about their lives: addiction and abuse, tragedy and trauma, sickness and sex. Self-disclosure television also rose in popularity by promoting complete confession.
On tabloid talk shows in particular, guests are encouraged to admit the uncensored truth about their lives. The hosts continually endorse confession as the greatest and most successful therapy. Lying and deceiving are portrayed as the very worst moral wrong, beyond any violence or sexual deviance. There are often lie detectors and DNA tests to catch guests out if they do try to deceive the host and the audience.
In fact, confession has been in fashion since the millennium. Our culture has persistently promoted the discovery and expression of the unrepressed natural self. We are encouraged to be completely and unrelentingly honest about our deepest fears, darkest desires, and worst failures. According to an article in Oprah Winfrey's magazine, confessing means deciding to "tell your whole truth to at least one other human being", which is "one of the hardest but most liberating things you'll ever do".
Visit any major bookshop and you'll find shelf upon shelf of self-help books offering the same advice. Complete honesty – or, in business-psychology speak, 'authenticity' – is promoted as the means to successful relationships, career satisfaction, emotional fulfilment, financial success, and general happiness. The most important thing is to 'be true to yourself': by confessing your thoughts and expressing your emotions honestly, you can find your own personal truth and, with it, peace.
confession has been in fashion since the millennium
In 2004, sociologist Frank Furedi claimed that we were experiencing "the colonisation of the sphere of religion by therapeutic authority." Indeed, confession was once a religious phenomenon, and is a topic about which the Bible has plenty to say. We know that God can see to the depths of our hearts, whether or not we choose to divulge their sinful contents to anyone else. We must not think that we can hide them from him, or that we have anything to gain by doing so. In fact, the Bible contains a clear warning that "whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy" (Proverbs 28:13).
There may be emotional benefits to sharing the burden with a trusted friend. Indeed, if we are to find healing and wholeness, it is essential that we can support each other in recognising our shortcomings and bringing them before God. James encourages us to "confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16).
Should we therefore embrace this fashion for public confession? The Bible is clear that it is not the act of 'getting things off our chest' that allows us to be transformed. Confessing to God is the only route to forgiveness and healing: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Jesus is far more than a counsellor; he is a Saviour and Redeemer.
By turning to therapeutic television, rather than to God, for confession and the hope of forgiveness, we were becoming couch potatoes in more ways than one.
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Who is in the control room?
So far, we've seen that reality shows offer a controlled and distorted view of our own reality. We are presented with a cast of ordinary people who we can identify with. We find comfort in their communities, which we can observe, and influence with our votes. Watching the participants reassures us that we are normal, as well as helping to define abnormality. It reinforces the message that honest confession is to be praised, whilst dishonesty and cheating are not to be tolerated. However, it draws us into a world which is constructed of falsehoods.
If reality is anything like a reality TV show, then we are the participants – reality's would-be stars. So who is in the control room? What type of people, or type of being, is in control of our world?
Through its name alone, Big Brother makes it clear that this is an important question to ask. Big Brother is a character in George Orwell's famous book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a tyrannical government oppresses the population. Every citizen is subjected to constant surveillance. Individuality is persecuted and the Thought Police ensure that people only believe an approved version of historical 'truth'. The implication for reality TV is clear: whoever controls the boundaries of reality has the power to influence the lives of individuals, as well as their actions, and even their thoughts.
in the world of reality TV, who gets to play God?
In Big Brother, the controlling power can speak to the housemates in a number of guises: tannoy announcements, Diary Room responses or through the show's presenter. Whoever is speaking, instructions are always prefaced with the statement: "This is Big Brother." The sentence functions as a warning to housemates: do as we say. Whether they are told to dance in the garden in the middle of the night or to eat red hot chilli peppers, they'd better obey.
Big Brother also has power over the housemates' perceptions. In almost every series the producers attempt to prove that they can warp the housemate's understanding of what is happening. They give some housemates information which they hide from others. They set up a challenge and change the rules at the last moment. They even introduce fake contestants – known as moles – or stage false evictions.
Who has the power to shape our reality and to control our perceptions? This is the question that reality TV poses to us. If we have aligned ourselves with the contestants, then who takes the role of producer? Or to put it another way, in the world of reality TV, who gets to play God?
Reality TV shows offered several images of what the being that controls reality might be like. Whether or not viewers realised it, each presented a confusing and distorted image of God. Let's look at four alternative definitions of God offered by reality TV.
The manipulative reality TV producer
If reality is anything like a reality TV show, then God is its controlling and unscrupulous editor.
No one is in any doubt that almost all 'reality' shows are heavily edited, including Big Brother. In an attempt to transform the hours of banal footage into a coherent and compelling story, editors make strategic cuts. This allows them to create of a cast of outrageous characters who are both real and unreal. Ordinary people, chosen for their extreme personalities, are transformed into exaggerated versions of themselves. This inevitably makes us view them in particular ways, so whilst we may believe that what we're watching is reality, our reactions are being carefully controlled.
Reality certainly does not write itself
In Ben Elton's novel Dead Famous (2001), a parody of Big Brother, fictional Senior Editor Bob Fogarty explains that the process of creating a compelling reality TV show is no different from creating a drama. It all begins with the characters: "People are basically dull.... We have to make them interesting, turn them into heroes and villains." If viewers want "good telly", he continues, they have to accept that reality shows are "basically fiction" and that, "like all TV and film", they're "built in the edit".
Real-life reality TV writers agree. In an online article, one claims:
the final cut ultimately is very similar in its narrative structure to scripted television.... with character development, goals, conflict, and resolution. We tell the same stories everyone else in entertainment does, for the same reasons and to the same ends. Reality certainly does not write itself.
Reality doesn't write itself. What implication does a statement like this have for our world? Presumably, there must be a writer, or a producer, setting out the storylines for us. There is, by implication a God. But what is he like? If he's anything like the Big Brother editors he is manipulative and controlling.
The unreliable documentary filmmaker
Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said, "In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director." So what if God is more like a documentary director?
Documentary films have thrived during the early twenty-first century, both on the small screen and in the cinema. Al Gore confronted climate change with An Inconvenient Truth. Super Size Me and Food, Inc., took on the food industry. Political activist Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Capitalism: A Love Story all performed well at the Cannes Film Festival. Nature documentaries are still popular: March of the Penguins and Grizzly Man are among the most prominent examples, alongside the offerings of Sir David Attenborough.
In his autobiography, Life on Air (2002), Attenborough discusses the problems of making documentaries in the age of 3D, HD, and computer animation: "Viewers ... have every reason to be baffled. What is true and what is false? Since anything can be invented, why believe that anything is real?" In particular, he claims to be wary of technological advances in editing and computer imaging that tempt producers to ape the impossible. Attenborough concludes, "a viewer will only be able to trust whether a sequence is truthful or fictitious by considering the integrity and record of the people who made the film and the organisation that broadcasts it."
Since anything can be invented, why believe that anything is real?
- David Attenborough
His approach seemed to work. In 2009 a Reader's Digest poll declared David Attenborough the most trusted person in Britain. His voice has soothed the nation for sixty years, reassuring us that the incredible things that he shows us are genuine. Attenborough himself, and the BBC with whom he is intimately connected, seemed to be the epitome of trustworthy broadcasting.
That was until 2011, when Attenborough's hugely popular Frozen Planet series came under fire. It was revealed that shots of a polar bear being born were filmed in a zoo rather than in the wild, and viewers were appalled at the deception. The media dubbed the fiasco 'The Frozen Planet Scandal'. Attenborough quickly defended himself, claiming that filming the sequence in the wild would have put the animals and the crew in danger. He also claimed that having the narrator mention the shot's location would have undermined the atmosphere of the moment. Nonetheless, he insisted, the script was carefully worded so as not to deceive: "It's not falsehood and we don't keep it secret either."
There was another sharp intake of collective breath in 2012, when Sir Ranulph Fiennes was accused of faking dramatic accidents during televised expeditions. Could such a well-respected explorer really have pretended for the cameras?
If the bastions of responsible programming are no longer able to provide us with genuine, unaltered footage of reality, can we trust anything we see on TV at all? And if even the most trustworthy and well-loved documentary makers lie to us and disappoint us, what might we come to expect of God?
The ruthless talent show judge
Who is in control of reality? Quiz and talent shows had a different answer: reality is controlled by a ruthless judge who proclaims their own idiosyncratic view with no concern other people's feelings.
Let's begin with the queen of mean, Anne Robinson. As the presenter of the game show The Weakest Link she became the byword in female disciplinarianism. She built a rapport with the audience by making cutting jokes about the contestants: "Who perhaps hasn't really got a grasp of the English language?"; "Who would come third in a duel?"; "Whose only brain cell has finally died of loneliness?". The show's catchphrase, which came to define her, was constantly repeated by viewers who tried to imitate her icy delivery: "You are the Weakest Link, goodbye." In 2001 she was voted Rudest Woman on Television by TV Times readers.
This was just the beginning. From 2000 onwards the trend for direct, or even offensive, reality television personalities gained momentum. Think, for example, of the TV chef Gordon Ramsay, Popstars judge Nasty Nigel Lythgoe, Strictly's panellist Craig Revel Horwood, or Glee's fictional cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. These blunt, unforgiving individuals deliver acid truths about reality as they see it. Viewers hang on their every word, appalled by their lack of sensitivity, amused by their witty cruelties, and drawn to their complete honesty. They offer us their own personal perspective of reality, with no apologies, and no attempt to offer a balanced point of view.
"I don't mean to be rude, but..."
- Simon Cowell
The most iconic example is Simon Cowell. As a TV talent show judge and creator of The X Factor, his personal brand of judgement mixes blunt honesty and extreme narcissism. There is no modicum of tact in his appraisals of hopeful singers. A single look or word from him can be enough to kill a career before it has begun. For many people, that's all there is to him: "He is a sharp-tongued, edgy entertainer who doesn't suffer fools gladly."
It has now become cultural commonplace to quote some of Cowell's spiteful one-liners: "You have just invented a new form of torture"; "In every single way, that was everything I hated"; "If you sung like this 2,000 years ago, people would have stoned you." At times these sound-bites are funny, they're often accurate, they're daring, but they're unsparingly cruel. Cowell knows it – his unofficial catchphrase is, "I don't mean to be rude, but..."
In my mind, I'm the honest one. That's all.... I only ever say what I'm thinking at the time. That's the only way I can describe what I'm doing. My statements are genuine. Nothing is rehearsed.... To me, it's not being rude. It's being honest. And it's being myself.
Cowell is certainly confident of his views. In 2009, colleague Louis Walsh spoke about Cowell to The Sun, saying: "He thinks he is God. What's the difference between God and Simon Cowell? God doesn't walk round Knightsbridge thinking he's Simon Cowell!"
What is the difference between God and Simon Cowell? Perhaps God looks at us with the same critical eye, expecting us to perform well enough to receive his favour? It's certainly not what the Bible says, but it's what culture seems to suggest.
The moralising ringmaster of the tabloid talk show
Tabloid talk shows extend the image that those in control of reality are blunt and judgemental. Here there is an added moral dimension, because the talk show hosts are given the power to judge their guests' actions. In this sense, tabloid talk shows are the direct descendants of court-based shows like The People's Court and Judge Judy.
So when we switch on a tabloid talk show, what kind of narrative are we watching? Whether it's Trisha, Kilroy, Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer, the format is predictable. A group of friends, family members, or romantic competitors find themselves in conflict because of their unusual sexual preferences or complex social situation. The eponymous host offers to listen, to give them advice, and to adjudicate as they fight it out in front of the cameras.
Viewers are both horrified and perversely delighted by the "freak show" of "humilitainment"
The shocking revelations and extravagant displays of human behaviour that follow break every social taboo. Indeed, according to Liz Lemon – a character in the TV show 30 Rock – "If reality TV has taught us anything, it's that you can't keep people with no shame down." Viewers are both horrified and perversely delighted by the "freak show" of "humilitainment". In 2007, District Judge Alan Berg famously called the tabloid talk show, "a human form of bear baiting which goes under the guise of entertainment".
Why do people strive to appear on these kinds of programmes? Do they crave attention, are they attracted to the prospect of fame, or are they genuinely looking for a means of solving their problems? Some are allegedly bribed or tricked, and once on the stage many are subjected to bait-and-switch tricks in which they are confronted by people and problems they had not anticipated.
The hosts are not only there to offer emotional support to the startled contestants. They also have to power to proclaim moral judgements about their behaviour. Tabloid talk shows are therefore more than mindless daytime trash TV. Joshua Gamson even claims that they mark the boundaries of society, defining deviance and abnormality. He argues that although "the lines of difference and normality are the centrepiece of the arguments against talkshows", they are in fact important "battlegrounds over what sexuality and gender can be". Which it to say that in provoking viewers to criticise their twisted morality, these shows contribute to a society-wide conversation about what is acceptable.
A glorious state of flux
The British musical Jerry Springer: The Opera pushed this idea to its limit. It parodied the famous talk show, suggesting that it normalised immoral behaviour by giving everyone an equal voice. According to the musical, anything goes in the world of Jerry Springer: "There are no absolutes of good and evil and we all live in a glorious state of flux." The cast sing this refrain as a kind of mystical chant, "nothing is wrong and nothing is right, and everything that lives is holy."
society has added an Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not judge"
This is how The Opera concludes: there is no moral division between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. However, after seeing The Opera, the real Jerry Springer complained that he had been misrepresented. He argued that his programmes do uphold a strong moral framework, saying, "I make it very clear every single show that there is a right and wrong ... from God."
The controversial politician Robert Kilroy-Silk took an even more didactic approach when it came to enforcing moral judgements on his chat show, Kilroy. In one episode a female audience member began a contribution with the familiar phrase, "I'm not here to judge anyone, but…". She was echoing The Opera's conclusion: anything goes, each to his own. Nobody has the right to judge the actions of another human being. According to sociologist Alan Wolfe, our society has added tolerance to the Biblical Decalogue as an Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not judge."
Kilroy, however, believed differently. He swiftly stepped in to correct the contributor, telling her, "Oh yes we are. Stop, let me tell you, unless there is such a thing as right and wrong there is no civilisation."
According to Kilroy, moral judgements are the only way to control, organise, and understand reality. We cannot simply all follow our own inner moral compass – there must be some objective standards. What larger message did his outburst communicate to his viewers? That reality is messy, and it is presided over by a judgemental figure intent on delivering moral condemnations.
From our beginning with the editors of Big Brother, we have considered the documentary format, TV meanies including Simon Cowell, and tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer. We can see a common theme: the person in control of the on-screen reality is a judge. They may be making judgements about what content should be included in a programme, how it should be manufactured and presented, which ordinary people are worthy of a place in the spotlight, or how morally acceptable certain behaviour is. Their actions and their role stay the same: they are positioned as the ultimate judge of reality. We as viewers play a secondary role in judging, by determining whether or not what we are shown chimes with reality.
The Bible is clear that "There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy" (James 4:12). That judge is God, and "his judgments are true and just" (Revelation 19:2). His judgement is the opposite of that offered to us by TV. He is not cold and distant, but he is good and loves us. In fact, his whole law hangs on the central commandments for us to love him and to love our neighbours (Matthew 22:36-40). If we follow this commandment, then we will naturally follow God's law (John 14:23, 2 John 1:6).
when God delivers his judgement, it will accord with genuine reality
God's criteria for judgement are therefore very different from that of the world. This is the reason that Paul claims "with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.... It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).
There are times when we must use our God-given discernment to settle disputes between believers (1 Corinthians 6:2, 5-6). However, the Bible often warns against the dangers of rashly judging other people, proclaiming: "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). Humans are prone to judge by appearances (John 7:24) and often find themselves being hypocritical (Romans 2:1, Mathew 7:1-5). This poses a challenge to anyone who attempts to deliver moral judgements: "who are you to judge your neighbour?" (James 4:12).
God promises that he will "search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds" (Jeremiah 17:10). He will get to the truth of the matter and when he delivers his judgement, it will accord with genuine reality.
Small screen, big questions
Let's summarise. By watching reality TV with our brains switched on we can see that supposedly banal, trashy television shows were one of the major ways in which society began to grapple with a key philosophical question: what is real, and how can we know?
what is real, and how can we know?
Our hunt for answers led us to a fascination with docusoaps, game shows, and talk shows. Jade Goody and Simon Cowell became unlikely champions for sharing their unedited thoughts with the world. Nasty Nick and Charles Ingram were cast as villains who would deceive and scheme for their own gain. Jerry Springer and other talk show hosts were given the task of promoting honesty and delivering – or withholding – moral judgement. David Attenborough fell from grace, Anne Robinson rose to fame, and all the while Big Brother watched on.
Shows like Big Brother appealed to our nosiness. They recognised our desire for social interactions and played to our growing appetite the mundane as a form of entertainment. They challenged our definitions of privacy and intimacy, and questioned the moral aspects of watching someone be born, live, or even die on television. They encouraged deep emotionally attachment to strangers. They upheld honesty, integrity, and transparency as crucial personal characteristics.
Reality TV allowed us to probe the idea of celebrity, increasing our desire to be famous by making fame more achievable. It also prompted us to consider the mechanics of TV itself. It revealed our concern with media exploitation and the inescapability of surveillance technology, along with our susceptibility to paranoia, scepticism and the subsequent need to assess the authenticity of our surroundings.
what is true, and who can we trust to tell us?
Another significant philosophical issue lay underneath the surface: what is true, and who can we trust to tell us? The influential science fiction programme The X-Files, which aired until 2002, promised us that "The Truth Is Out There". The problem was knowing where to find it. We were forced to become judges, trying to discern the sincerity and accuracy of the so called reality offered to us. Indeed, reality TV made us a nation of judges, keen to emulate the direct critiques that we saw delivered on screen in reality talent shows.
By presenting us with a range of directorial approaches and hosting styles, reality shows got us thinking about the people and powers that control our reality. By implication, they made suggestions about the nature of God. They revealed concern that the great power that controls our lives may not be benevolent. Reality TV warned us to be wary of the traditional narratives which are presented to us as objective truth.
But perhaps, ultimately, reality TV is proof of our eventual apathy in the face of all of this philosophising. We'd rather just be consuming without question.
© 2015 Rachel Helen Smith