Friday, December 10, 2010

It’s a rip-off – get me out of here

It can be alarming when you realise you are not a nice person. This epiphany about myself came to me while watching (against my will, I should add) the UK television show I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here.

Let me explain. I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here, for those not based in the UK, involves dumping a group of celebrities in the Australian jungle for a few weeks. They are then subjected to various humiliating and seemingly dangerous trials. This normally involves being showered with insects or being submerged into tunnels with rats and snakes. A notable activity is the Bush Tucker Trial, which, generally, means eating worms, cockroaches and a mandatory kangaroo penis and testicles. The winning celebrity is the one who stomachs the most awful things.

Presumably, the audience, for some perverse reason, enjoy watching the celebrities being mildly tortured. The celebrities, seemingly, agree to the humiliation and simulated danger in return for the publicity.

But back to why I am not a nice person. The revelation came when I found myself, while watching I’m a Celebrity, being overwhelmed by a desire to see the participants being swallowed, one by one, by an enormous snake live on TV, then regurgitated and finally squashed by a bouncing castrated kangaroo.

I do not consider myself to be a violent person. So why my sadistic reaction? My reaction is linked to the duplicity implicit in the shows. Celebrities are never in real danger. Everything is carefully stage- managed to ‘entertain’ the public for money. There is no ‘reality’ involved.

Annette Hill, in her 2005 book on reality TV, notes that reality TV is a catch-all phrase for a wide range of programmes featuring real people. These range from ‘on-scene’ shows (like those set in hospitals) through to shows where real people are placed in different contexts, like I’m a Celebrity, and, most famously, Big Brother.

The latter are peculiar ‘reality TV’ shows because they are not about real life at all. Although they feature real people without scripts, the shows themselves are contrived and supervised by a vast crew. Each task that is filmed is planned, thought through, reactions anticipated, and guided to a predictable conclusion. The show is heavily edited to create characters – the villain, the coward, the nice guy, and so on. Once the ‘true’ characters have been revealed, viewers can decide if they like the characters or not, and then fully engage in the drama by, generally, voting, for a price, for their favourite.

This is where the real exploitation of viewers takes place. Viewers are taken on a so-called authentic ‘journey’ with the characters, and they are tricked into thinking they now know these celebrities. For this pleasure, they have to part with their cash in telephone voting.

Reality TV programmes cost about seven times less to make than drama. The programmers are making massive profits through advertising revenue. They then have the audacity to take money from the telephone vote process. Some shows go even further.

The X-Factor talent show, for example, has the gall to release charity singles for the public to buy. Of course, supporting charity is worthwhile, but this is yet another way the shows can hoodwink the public into participation (righteous this time). The programmers are so greedy they cannot donate themselves to charity from their massive profits. They get the public to do this without undercutting their bottom line.

I am not an anti-TV moralist. Adults can watch whatever they find entertaining and, with informed consent, participants are free to degrade themselves for others’ gratification if they want. Television is not the cause of all social ills.

So, if you want watch this type of reality TV, be my guest, but realise it is all about taking your money. So, at the very least, please do not lift the phone.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, December 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 December 2010.