Reality television has actually been around for much, much longer.
1974’s The Family is one of the first “reality” shows in television history, following the daily lives of the working-class Wilkins family from Reading.
I confess that I had neither seen nor ever heard of The Family before writing this article, but after looking deeper, I noticed a striking – and worrying – similarity to what I consider to be a very modern problem claim. We’ll come back to that.
NEW 🚨 The first #BBUK The trailer has arrived with the brand new eye!
👁️ ITV: “The ultimate social experiment returns this autumn as footage from the house will be streamed live every night until the early hours on ITVX, after both Big Brother and its siblings air on ITV2.” pic.twitter.com/XcPb57HWH3
— sᴜᴘᴇʀ ᴛᴠ (@superTV247) July 31, 2023
When I started writing this, I thought it would be easy to: 1) discard the entire concept, 2) criticize the catalog of idiots who act like idiots on these shows, 3) denounce those who enable it , 4) to break up.
Then I thought, “No, try to look at the whole idea objectively and see if I can see any value or real benefit in these shows other than – in my initial view – the exploitation of the weak.
Benefits of Reality TV
I would be a hypocrite if I said I never watched Pop Idol the X-Factor or a similar show. Before I was about 15 years old, I used to watch these shows regularly with my family, tuning in every week to see our favorite actors.
Off the top of my head I remember Jamie Afro, Tabby singing The Kinks (just googled it, it was 2004…), Danyl Johnson’s audition and Paul Potts’ Nessun Dorma.
Those were the times when we just went “Wow,” as you probably did at your own memorable performances. And we shared that moment together as a family and can still remember it today.
Reality TV can do just that. Bring a family together once an evening or a week to share a truly fun experience that in some cases you will never forget. Back to Paul Potts: I’m sure we all remember the first time we saw this? And probably with whom too.
If the gig was ever really talented or entertaining, we were thrilled and tuned in every week. I think we even voted once or twice.
In this case, reality TV not only benefited us as a family, but also gave the show itself stardom. I’m pretty sure Susan Boyle made a million or two here and there and Rylan has no doubt had a wonderful career behind the X-Factor.
Gogglebox is another shining example of one of the biggest reality TV twists anyone has dreamed up in decades. I mean, who else but the genius Caroline Aherne? And of course Craig Cash.
It stayed true to the concept of reality TV: “television shows in which ordinary people are constantly filmed,” as defined by the Oxford Language, but with a twist.
We as families watched other families watching TV… and it was an absolutely brilliant sight.
The show gave us so many incredible moments because we were able to see the shows that the families were watching for the first time and also their real reactions that we as viewers had complete understanding of.
Standout moments? Musharaf finds his voice in Educating Yorkshire (another fine example of reality TV) and in this moment below (volume up) I dare you not to cry.
Just heard about this June @Channel4 series #gogglebox died. She and Leon were my favorite people on the show. When Leon died a few years ago, this clip from the end of Gladiator always stuck with me. Now they are back together 🥺 RIP June ❤️ pic.twitter.com/hcufxHq10v
— Jonathan Blakeley (@blakeleyjono) May 8, 2020
I’m on the verge now.
Disadvantages of Reality TV
Oh yes, now it occurs to me, no, I’m not.
Reality TV is one of the most toxic and manipulative forms of “entertainment” that we see on our television screens every hour, every day and every week.
What was once a limited commodity can now be found everywhere on all possible channels. In 2000 we had a limited range of options, but now this “cancer” has spread exponentially.
Why is it cancer? Well, it has proven time and time again to be completely exploitative and has led to several major controversies or, unfortunately, tragedies.
Big Brother is the definitive “reality TV” show you think of first and is returning to our screens soon. Standout moments from the previous iteration are mostly remembered as bad things.
The first was Big Brother in 2007 and concerned comments made by contestants Jade Goody, Jackiey Budden, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara about Indian contestant Shilpa Shetty.
They called the Bollywood actress ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ and said she needed a ‘day in the slums’. Of course, there was an international outcry over Jade, Jo and Danielle’s actions – in India, where Shilpa is a popular celebrity, people burned effigies of Jade in the streets.
Next was Roxanne Pallet. In August 2018, while competing on the twenty-second season of Celebrity Big Brother, Pallett falsely accused fellow housemate Ryan Thomas of hitting her, sparking a domestic violence uproar.
Another Big Brother example? He gives conspiracy fanatic Andrew Tate his first-ever platform on British television. The suspected human trafficker and sex offender has since used his fame to build an almost cult-like following and is now arguably the most controversial person on the planet.
Is this entertainment?
This is where my ideal version of reality TV differs from the crowd. I’ve discovered that I like reality TV when ordinary people showcase their extraordinary talent, give us real entertainment and give us moments we’ll never forget.
I don’t like it when people – typically working class people – are lumped together and marginalized, pushed and marginalized by invisible producers just to provoke reactions to our benefit.
Case in point: Love Island. There have been four suicides linked to the hit ITV show.
Sophie Gradon, who appeared as a contestant on the show in 2016, was found hanging in her home in 2018 at the age of 32. Her boyfriend, Aaron Armstrong, who found her body, hanged himself three weeks later. He was 25.
Mike Thalassitis, who appeared in the 2017 series, was 26 years old when he was found hanging in a park in 2019.
Caroline Flack, the 40-year-old former Love Island presenter, died by suicide at her home in north-east London in 2020.
All contestants on Love Island are promised dream celebrity and brand deals, but in doing so they must sacrifice their dignity and face the barbaric onslaught of social media and public opinion.
ITV has since introduced additional due diligence measures following these tragic deaths and will continue to do so with the upcoming reboot of Big Brother. Contestants on the show also receive respect and inclusion training to set out the “expectation of appropriate behavior and language.”
Is reality TV changing? Well, maybe it is, or maybe it’s just to cover their backs, because these invisible producers have a lot to answer for, and it doesn’t just apply to Love Island and Big Brother.
The I remember Jamie Afro for good reasons, but these poor people are remembered for the worst reasons.
In a sort of modernized human freak show, viewers were expected to laugh, point and giggle at these vulnerable contestants, probably told they were brilliant, just to get them in front of the crowd.
Remember Ariel Burdett auditioning for the 2008 series of X Factor UK? Before her performance, she took down her label after telling the judges she was “a person, not a number” and sang an original song for the judges after explaining she was a “holistic vocal coach.”
In November 2019, Ariel was found dead in West Yorkshire aged 38 with a knife wound to her neck. She had taken her own life. Friends and family paid tribute to the singer on social media. One of her friends said: “I think she regretted doing the X Factor because she was actually a decent musician and it kind of spoiled her.”
The Jeremy Kyle Show. Need I say more? A show that is literally about insulting and laughing at the poorest in society, just for our benefit.
Kyle himself “may have caused or contributed to the death” of a guest who was suspected of taking his own life after failing a lie detector test on the show, a preliminary investigation said.
Steve Dymond, 63, died at his home in Portsmouth, Hampshire, seven days after taking part in The Jeremy Kyle Show to prove he had not cheated on his fiancée. The show was subsequently canceled.
It’s disgusting when you think about it and as mentioned, it always seems to be working class people, that’s what history tells us.
Remember “The Family” from 1974? Well, that too was inevitably parodied with an elitist sneer. The show was later the basis for a sketch presented by Monty Python’s Flying Circus entitled “The Most Awful Family in Britain 1974”.
Is it time for reality TV to end? Well, in my eyes, certain elements do, yes. It has proven to be a huge success, without all the putdowns, participant manipulation, and ridicule. So why can’t it just stay that way?
Anyway, Big Brother is returning soon, tune in and decide for yourself.