Why I Adore… Reality Television

By Emma Ashton | 

Reality television has always been the unruly child amongst television genres – passionately loved by some, but barely tolerated by others, many of whom hoped and predicted that viewers would move on and it would eventually die out and never be heard of again.

Much to the chagrin of many, this naughty (and rumoured to be illegitimate) child, through sheer force of personality, continues to demand attention.

In the past decade, reality television shows have dominated ratings, created many stars, unearthed hidden talents, reinvigorated flagging careers, and provided much media chatter – both of the superficial and the deeply intellectual and sociological kinds. In fact, there’s no ignoring reality shows in any discussion of contemporary television programming.

In the beginning…

The beginning of the 2000s was the start of reality TV as we now know it. In Australia the networks bought up overseas formats like Big Brother, Survivor, The Mole, Dancing With The Stars, and Idol, producing local versions and variations.

The first big hit was the first series of Big Brother Australia, broadcast on Network Ten in 2001. This was the Australian version of the Endemol format, which originated in the Netherlands and now has franchises all over the world which follow the basic format: a diverse group of (usually) young people are confined in a house, with their interactions monitored like lab rats, and regular evictions eliminating all but the winner from the house.

The first Australian series captured the imagination of audiences (which averaged 1.4 million in the three-month period of series 1) and continued on yearly until the three-year hiatus after the low-rating 2008 series. (Big Brother has recently been revived for a ninth series, currently screening on the Nine Network.)

The first season of AUSTRALIAN SURVIVOR aired on the Nine Network in 2002.

In the early days, an important part of the voyeuristic pleasure of Big Brother was the ability to watch the action live on the new-fangled invention, the internet. Viewers could then interact with the show by voting to eliminate contestants through SMS, and also by talking about it online in fan forums.

The rise of reality TV thus coincided with the rise of social media, which enticed viewers to watch shows live in order to discuss them in real time. This was something the critics and naysayers had not counted on: the explosion of social media and the perfect way it married with reality television programs.

After Big Brother, other international reality formats quickly found their way onto our screens, including the first series of Australian Survivor (Nine Network, 2002), Australian Idol (Network Ten, 2003), Dancing with the Stars (Channel 7, 2004), Australia’s Next Top Model (Fox 8, 2005) and many others.

The Masterchef phenomenon

It was Masterchef Australia which finally forced the industry and the critical viewer to give the reality genre some respect. The first series of this show hit our screens in April 2009 (Network Ten) as a replacement for the dead Big Brother, and it showed that a cooking show could pull in huge viewing numbers night after night. Ratings averaged more than 3 million viewers a night, peaking at 4.11 million in the final episode.

Julie Goodwin and Poh Ling Yeow – winner and runner-up for MASTERCHEF Series 1, 2009.

Other networks were desperate to find a reality show that would get people tuning in. Channel Nine achieved this with The Block (revived with great success in 2010) and most recently The Voice (2012); as has Seven with My Kitchen Rules (first season 2010) and The X Factor (first season 2005, revived in 2010). In fact, it should be acknowledged that Seven persisted with those latter two shows despite slow first seasons, eventually turning them into mega hits.

In 2009, viewers who had previously hidden their love of reality TV, along with new viewers who’d just discovered it, were suddenly talking about Masterchef, passionately involved in whether their favourite contestants would win or be eliminated. The success of this program showed that reality TV was not going away, but instead was a force to be reckoned with. Viewers who had finally crossed to the “dark side” were now willing to test the water with other shows in the reality genre.

Indigenous? Muslim? Middle-Aged or Mumsy? Please apply

Personally, what I love about reality TV is its diversity of casting. For the first time in primetime history, there were people from different backgrounds, ages, sizes and sexuality on our television screens, and look at how we have embraced them! It could be argued that this has paved the way for more risks to be taken in casting within drama series, other television formats, and even feature films.

Winner of BIG BROTHER, Series 4, the Fijian-born Trevor Butler and runner-up Bree Amer, 2004.

Who can forget Trevor Butler, of Fijian background, winning one million dollars on Big Brother 2004 and going on to have a media career? Or Casey Donovan, who won the reality singing show Australian Idol 2004 at the age of 16, voted for by viewers who did not care about her Aboriginal ancestry or her size? The hugely talented Indigenous singer Jessica Mauboy also obtained her start on Australian Idol, where she was runner-up in the 2006 series. Without this start, it’s possible she’d never have been discovered, and we wouldn’t be enjoying her talents in feature films like Bran Nue Dae and most recently, The Sapphires.

Journalist, television host and radio broadcaster Chrissie Swan may never have had a media career without the kick start she got from appearing as runner-up in the 2003 series of Big Brother.  Nine years on, she still battles criticisms for her weight, her parenting and her refreshing candor, but she forces the industry to treat her with respect because of her popularity with audiences, a popularity which culminated in her winning the Most Popular New Female Talent Logie Award in 2011.

Jessica Mauboy, runner-up in the 2006 series of AUSTRALIAN IDOL and now gracing cinema screens in THE SAPPHIRES.

Amina Elshafei, who was open about her Muslim religion on the 2012 series of Masterchef Australia, was loved by the audience. She showed that a Muslim girl, wearing a hijab and avoiding pork, can be sassy, talented and ‘Australian’. As did Mo and Mos (Mohammed El-leissy and Mostafa Haroun) who were the extremely funny bumbling team on the first season of The Amazing Race Australia. Australian born Muslims of Egyptian background, these two friends were one of the reasons the 2011 show was such fun to watch.

Reality singing TV shows were initially considered an illegitimate way for a person to enter the industry as they had not done the “hard yards” in the music circuit. However shows like Idol, The X Factor and The Voice gave talented singers the opportunity to showcase their skills when previously they may not have had the right ‘look’ or the necessary connections to get ahead in the industry.

Without Australian Idol, would record executives ever have considered signing up 2003 winner Guy Sebastian? A Sri Lankan/Malay boy with an afro, who was not shy about talking about his belief in God or the fact that he was a virgin, he was not exactly made in the traditional pop star mould, yet he continues with chart success and as a judge on The X Factor.

Winner of the 2012 series of The Voice, Karise Eden has a big, gravelly voice and a troubled background, growing up in foster care with low self esteem. It’s highly unlikely that she’d ever have succeeded in getting a demo tape onto a recording executive’s desk without The Voice. And fellow contestant Darren Percival’s demo tape would have been stamped “too old” and “been gigging too long”. Through The Voice, however, he was able to reach his audience – the mums at home who don’t have the time, money or energy to get out to live shows.

The award-winning hit, GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM, Series 1, SBS1.

Go Back To Where You Came From (SBS, 2011) brought the genre respect by highlighting the important and contentious issue of refugees. The program used the tricks and conventions of reality TV productions, placing the cast of six ‘ordinary’ Australians outside their comfort zone and pushing them to their emotional limits. The three-part series took its Australian participants on a confronting 25 day journey which saw them challenge their preconceptions about refugees and asylum seekers. The resulting show, along with its discussion forum and social media frenzy, increased viewers’ understanding of global issues, increasing our empathy for the plight of dispossessed people. The series garnered a number of awards, including the coveted Golden Rose for Best of 2012 at the Rose d’Or Awards ceremony in Switzerland, the TV Week Logie Award in 2012 for Most Outstanding Factual, and two awards at the 2011 United Nations Association of Australian Media Peace Awards for best television documentary and for its promotion of multicultural issues.

Now with the second series of Go Back to Where You Came From (currently broadcast on SBS1), the same production team have created a celebrity version of the show, with participants including former hardline Liberal politician Peter Reith and former ‘shock jock’ Michael Smith. This is attracting similar accolades from the press and audiences.

In a society where education, race, gender and socio-economic background strongly determine opportunities, reality TV has surprisingly allowed these barriers to be challenged and crossed, changing our cultural perceptions and norms in the process. This can only be a good thing.

Connection, emotion and fantasy – why reality works for me

Another aspect of the reality genre which I love is watching people receive the opportunity to transform their lives. It may just be with the big cash prize, but also in other ways.

Would winner of Masterchef Australia season one, Julie Goodwin, a middle-aged stay-at-home mum, ever have dreamt her life would change so much when she auditioned for the show? Anyone bored with the humdrum of their everyday life would cheer her on for jagging a Woman’s Weekly column or her television cooking show. It is not just the winners, however, who change their lives. The vast majority of the Masterchef contestants have changed their lives as a result of being on the show.

South Australian winners of MY KITCHEN RULES, Leigh Sexton (left) and Jennifer Evans – who was initially seen as a ‘villain’.

What really draws love, however, is being able to emotionally connect with the contestants. Like modern day Vaudeville, these shows cause us to fall in love with some, and fervently dislike others. In fact, some contestants are set up to be villains, and this need not be seen as a  negative, as the savvy reality TV contestant realises this role will get them more air time and a higher media profile. In fact, the villain can even transform into the hero. For example, this year’s My Kitchen Rules winner, Jen (Jennifer Evans), started off being quite disliked for her forthright views, however she forced the audience to treat her with respect, due to her superior cooking skills and her entertainment value.

I also love the fact that I can be personally involved in reality television shows through voting and social media interactions. Yes, we viewers are sometimes manipulated by the editing, but it feels good to be supporting the people we like.

Another aspect I enjoy is the sheer quantity of fresh faces that appear on our screens with each new show. As each new series starts, I can’t help but  wonder who will be the star, who will have the talent? Which contestant will I hate, and which ones will  make me laugh?

Hosts with the most – to gain

I also love seeing the fresh (or re-freshed) faces of the cast of judges and hosts who front these shows. At one point it may have been considered a career dead-end – though faded 80s rock stars must have been grateful for the boost to their retirement funds. Now, however, these are prized jobs. Media identities know that if they can appear on a top rating reality show, they may just reinvigorate careers, find whole new fan bases, sell merchandise and showcase another side of themselves.

Revived careers – the judges for THE VOICE AUSTRALIA, Season 1: Joel Madden, Keith Urban, Delta Goodrem & Seal. 2012

It was no coincidence that most of the coaches on The Voice had singles, marketing campaigns and ticket sales commencing at the time the show was broadcast. Delta Goodrem had not had a hit for five years and now she’s everywhere. Within Australia, Keith Urban was considered a niche talent, more famous for his movie star wife, Nicole Kidman, than for his own talents. But with The Voice he cemented his identity as a likeable and approachable talent within the mainstream.

Deserving Respect – a new Award for reality TV

One of the chief criticisms leveled at the genre has been that it steals jobs away from real actors and from creative talents involved in scripted drama, as well as leaching resources from hard news and traditional documentary formats. These are probably issues for someone other than a rabid reality fan to answer!

However, it must be acknowledged that the popularity of reality productions (many of which are more popular here in Australia than their international counterparts) has meant that they are a huge employer within the local industry and a training ground for many new talents both behind and in front of the camera. Live television events, such as those orchestrated by reality television shows, seem to be the future of free to air television, and one of the few formats resistant to time-shifting, illegal downloading and audience fragmentation.

The reality TV genre is broad and continually evolving. Reality television shows have given Australian viewers many of the iconic television moments of the last ten years, and it’s clear now that this genre will continue to thrive in the competitive television landscape.

As an obsessive fan and prolific commentator on reality television, I must say that I’m thrilled to see this much-maligned form of entertainment – which is such an important aspect of the yearly television schedule – now being acknowledged with its own Award by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). The people involved in producing, commissioning and working on reality television shows certainly deserve to have an award that recognises excellence within their genre, thus giving legitimacy and acknowledging excellence within these formats.

I’m eagerly looking forward to November, when we’ll find out which shows have been nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Reality Television Show. Bring it on!

About the author:

Emma Ashton is Editor/Publisher of Reality Ravings (www.realityravings.com). You can also follow her on Twitter @RealityRavings where she’s sure to be tuning in live and tweeting about the latest reality offerings on Australian television.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Adore… Reality Television

  1. Great article Emma. I couldn’t agree more about the recognition you give a show like Go Back To Where You Came From. If more TV series had the smarts to leverage the familiar and popular reality format we would have a better Australia.

  2. TC -I Will Survive – Let’s start with the positives – high production values, original content, some talent, and Stephan Elliott. Also, I like the way they show a glimpse of every solo performance. It also looks like they had a lot of fun making it. The negatives are the lack of depth of talent – they should have promoted Tom Sharah more in the previews as he has charisma to burn. However they seemed spooked by the campness of the show so are trying to “butch” it up by showcasing contestants who drive trucks, kick footballs and work in mines. These are not necessarily the star performers. Also an issue is lack of females, though all the guest judges are women – though a lot of them are not experts in musical theatre. I will continue to watch, however I can see how it is not resonating with the viewer. What do you think?

  3. Pingback: Why I Love Reality TV – AFI Now Giving The Genre An Award | reality ravings

  4. Quite an insightful post there, Emma. In fact, we at Windchimes Communications have recently done a piece on how such shows, internationally and domestically (In India) can leverage the social media to bring out these real people out in the spotlight and even the flipside to it wheresuch channels and shows can gain an amicable and digitally savvy individuals. Do drop by at http://goo.gl/ZMZt7 and share your views on the same.

    It’d be great to hear from someone who is in the thick of things. 🙂

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