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.

Timing and Talent: The Secrets Behind The Sapphires’ Success, with Director Wayne Blair

Wayne Blair, director of THE SAPPHIRES

Wayne Blair, director of  The Sapphires, is buzzing with excitement the morning after the film’s Australian premiere at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

We meet in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel, which is swarming with friends, relatives and crew from the film. Screenwriter Tony Briggs (whose own family history forms the basis of the story of an Aboriginal singing group who toured Vietnam in 1968) strolls past smiling, and there are wives carrying babies and kids milling in the the lounge area. It’s enough to make you want to be part of the family, which in a way, is a key to the film’s special charm.

An opening night to remember…

“It was such a special night, wasn’t it?” says Blair, who is now cheerfully battling a cold. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It was also a bit like a reunion! We had  the four lead actresses here – Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – the two writers [Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs]; Warwick Thornton, the cinematographer; Tess Schofield, the costume designer; the producers; and the four aunties whose story inspired the film.”

It certainly was a great night. As the festival’s opening night film, The Sapphires screened simultaneously in six packed cinemas. The feel-good story, with its spine-tingling Soul Music soundtrack, was followed by a huge party, with one of the film’s lead actresses, the golden voiced Jessica Mauboy, taking to the stage for an energetic live performance. The vibe in the room was ebullient, the general consensus being that The Sapphires is that magical much-longed-for creature: the quality Australian film with mass audience appeal.

“I was watching the film last night,” says Blair, “and I walked around between the six cinemas to see the audience reaction. It was great to be there and think, ‘yeah, it’s working!'”

A long journey, a tight budget and steep learning curve

It’s been a long journey for Blair, who is already an established stage and screen actor, writer and award-winning director of television and short films, including The Djarn Djarns, winner of the prestigious Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. (He was also nominated for an AFI Award for Best Screenplay in a Short Film for that project.) The Sapphires, however, is his feature film directorial debut.

“Tony [Briggs] approached me in about 2006 and said he was looking to make the stage musical into a film and wanted me to direct it,” says Blair. “But it was in the last three years that it really gained momentum. Three years ago, in Cannes, we got the money to make it, but then twelve months after that we lost the money from around the world. Then we got the money again in the space of about a week, and there was some real interest, and people were available to do it. We shot the film this time last year [2011] with a really tight budget of about AU$9.3 million. We had to shoot it in about six weeks. We had the money, we had the schedule, and the time was right.”

Partly shot in Vietnam (as well in Sydney and in Albury in country NSW), and with the added expense of recreating period costume and sets, meant that the budget and the schedule were very tight indeed. “We had to be very detailed and prepared to complete the film in those dates,” says Blair. “Of course every filmmaker wishes they had more time, but that was was we had to work with, and Warwick [Thornton] and myself and our first Assistant Director, Thomas Read, developed a kind of rhythm in terms of what we completed each day.”

Other challenges for the filmmaker included getting the sound right, particularly for a story with a musical focus. “Our Sound Designer Ben Osmo was unbelievable with the tight schedule. When you have five actors every day that you have to shoot and mic up, and have their voices as well as a piano thrown in, it’s all very complicated. Not just the playing and singing, but having the songs start and stop. It’s all those little nuances. We had Bry Jones as Music Producer and Cezary Skubiszewski doing the score. I feel very lucky to have had those three men available.”

Blair admits the learning curve while making The Sapphires was steep. “It was a huge task! Making a period film, with choreography, soul music, five actors every day – and three of the girls had very little acting experience – that was challenging. But now I  feel like I could walk on to a film set now with so much more confidence. I have learnt so much. Retained it as well. I just joke about how we fluked the film, but it was actually hard work and a lot of planning and good management.”

Cinematography – the quest for ‘a gorgeous feel’

There’s no doubt that having Warwick Thornton on board as Director of Photography was a boon for The Sapphires. The multi AFI Award-winning Indigenous director and cinematographer of Samson & Delilah (2009) had valuable experience to share and was a key contributor to the look and feel of the film.

“We wanted The Sapphires to look cinematic and we shot on 35mm,” says Blair. “It’s funny, people last night were saying to me: ‘That’s the last time you’re going to shoot on film’. And I asked Warwick about it – because we’re talking about a couple of other projects we want to do – and he said: ‘Ah, no, we’ll still shoot on film!'”

Director Wayne Blair (left) and cinematographer Warwick Thornton on the set of THE SAPPHIRES

“We wanted to make the film beautiful,” adds Blair. “We wanted to make Cummeraganja – the place which is the girls’ home – look like a home that you would love to go to. That’s how Cummeraganja was, and is today. Our resonating films were films like The Colour Purple, which has this farm on the outskirts of a plantation of the deep south, with colours that are just so rich – the reds and the purples and the oranges. Also, we wanted to show Vietnam. You’ve seen Vietnam through the eyes of American movies all the time, but you haven’t seen Vietnam through the eyes of these four Koori girls from country Victoria, in their reds and their oranges and their greens. We didn’t just want to make it pretty, but we wanted the colours to pop, to give the whole thing a gorgeous feel.”

L-R: Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy & Shari Sebbens in THE SAPPHIRES.

The Irish Ingredient

Another coup for the film was the casting of roguish Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids) in the role of Dave Lovelace, the failed musician who discovers the girls in a country town pub talent contest and becomes their manager.

“In the stage show Dave Lovelace was an Australian, but for the film we made him Irish,” says Blair. “And seeing how well it works, with all those Irish sensibilities coming into play, you just think, ‘Ah, he should have always been Irish!'”

As the only internationally recognised star in the film, O’Dowd was a key drawcard for The Sapphires in Cannes, when it had its world premiere to a standing ovation in May, boosted by the news that Harvey Weinstein had picked it up for international distribution. Blair remembers O’Dowd’s comments on the red carpet. “He said, Wayne, I’ve done work with many directors and many big films and I never thought this small Australian film I did in country Victoria would be at the Cannes Film Festival.’ He sort of jokes about how he only came to do it because he wanted to come and visit his sister, who lives in Melbourne, but he was great. While he was here, he had to go to L.A. a couple of time to shoot other things, so we only had him for three or four weeks of the shoot. We definitely worked him while we had him!”

Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, left) and Gail (Deborah Mailman) in a scene from THE SAPPHIRES.

Some joy and some love, and a chance to feel human again…

The Sapphires touches lightly on a number of issues surrounding the history and treatment of Indigenous Australians. There is reference to the Stolen Generation’ and to the problems of being ‘half-caste’ and the inherent racism of 1960s Australia. But the fact that the story is predominantly a happy one – featuring a loving and intact family, beautiful music and an upbeat ending, has brought it in for criticisms of ‘glossing over reality’.

Such quibbles are mildly annoying to Blair. “It’s weird. You can’t please everybody. There has been that kind of feedback, and that’s OK. But this is the film we wanted to make.” He continues. “There are films like Ivan Sen’s Toomelah and Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, but why not this kind of film too? Look at the world today, the war in Syria and everything else that’s happening. Aboriginal people in Australia need some joy and some love and the chance to feel human again. With my people, comedy is the best form of healing. We wanted to make some positive role models, positive change, rather than negative stereotypes we see all the time. There are lots of different representations – like Warwick’s, and Ivan’s and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae. With a film like this we can’t change the world in the way governments and laws can, but we can make a difference.”

According to Blair, the intention right from the outset was to make a film that was entertaining and sent people out of the cinema feeling happy. “We wanted to make a film like other films that make you shed a little tear, or make you want to fall in love, or want to ring your mum and say ‘I love you’, or go home and put some music on and dance. We didn’t want to make a film that made you feel like going into a dark house to have a cry and be by yourself for three weeks.”

Blair’s ambitions for the film see it reaching far beyond the inner-suburban arthouse cinemas. “The people that say ‘oh it glosses over this or that’ – they’re the half a per cent of people who watch film for a living, I suppose. But I want a packed cinema in Port Hedland, or a packed cinema in Gawler, South Australia, or Renmark, or Mt Isa. The people who watch the Olympics, or one-day cricket matches. I want people to go to the cinema again on a regular basis. Hopefully The Sapphires will be not only a continuation for Indigenous filmmakers, but also open it up for Australian filmmakers as a whole, because a film like this, out of 110 territories in the world, it’s going to go to 110. For a small Australian film with Indigenous content, we’re representing you, me, the people that are sitting over there. That feels quite nice!”

Does Blair feel he is part of a group, a movement, a family of Indigenous filmmakers who are making work together and creating a new reality? “Absolutely!” He exclaims. “United we stand, divided we fall. There’s this platform now, and more Indigenous stories are being told like Mabo and Richard Frankland’s Stone Bros., and the ABC series that I’ve been working on, Redfern Now.”

At the same time, Blair is careful not to get too excited, especially about the lack of Indigenous faces in mainstream media. “I think we’re a little bit stuck. It’s progressing, ever so slowly, but it’s nothing to celebrate just yet. Everyone goes ‘it’s a Renaissance!’ but we’re kind of doing it ourselves, and you need that support from people who have money.”

If he could fantasise about an ideal Australian film industry five years into the future, what would it look like? Blair laughs and says he’d love to see “something like getting Jess Mauboy and Shari Sebbens in a David Michôd film, or a film directed by Joel Edgerton. More black faces on the screen!”

He’d also like to see the dream run at Cannes continue. “The last three years we’ve had Samson & Delilah, Toomelah and The Sapphires at Cannes. It would be great to get another Australian film at Cannes with an Indigenous flavour.”

And then there are the budgets. A man can dream. “Sometimes you feel like people set you up to fail with the budgets,” he says. “I think it would be great to have an Indigenous film that had something like 30 million dollars or 40 million. Mao’s Last Dancer had 20 million… It would be great for non Indigenous filmmakers to cast Aboriginal actors in key roles, and also for Indigenous filmmakers to have budgets of 20 or 30 million a year, and a couple of those kind of films a year. Yeah, that’s what I’d like!”

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Fast Facts – The Sapphires

Key Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Director: Wayne Blair
Producers: Rosemary Blight & Kylie Du Fresne | Goalpost Pictures
Screenplay: Keith Thompson & Tony Briggs
Director of Photography: Warwick Thornton
Editor: Dany Cooper
Production Designer: Melinda Doring
Costume Designer: Tess Schofield
Hair & Makeup Designer: Nikki Gooley
Music Producer: Bry Jones
Composer: Cezary Skubiszewski
Choreographer: Stephen Page
Australian Distributor: Hopscotch Films
International Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Budget: Approx AU$9.3 million
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Twitter: @SapphiresFilm