'Real' TV by Bill Kirton

I suspect that most, probably all, of the other Authors Electric either don’t watch TV at all or concentrate on programmes devoted to culture, the arts and serious discussions of crucial social issues. I imagine them sitting back on a Charles Eames chair, sipping a glass of Château Pétrus and enjoying a serialisation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason on the latest Bang and Olufsen. My own diet, on the other hand, is predominantly of football, rugby, cricket and golf viewed from a Scrabble-named IKEA chair as I scoff a tub of peanut butter ice cream.

A Charles Eames Chair

Fine, it’s a very popular, quite addictive medium with highly professional writers, actors, presenters, producers and the rest who cater for almost all tastes. Even the despised commercials show levels of creative and professional excellence way beyond those of some blockbuster movies. But I really don’t like what it’s done with the notion of ‘reality’.

I know it’s a cliché, but one of the reasons is the preponderance of ‘reality’ TV shows. I think it maybe started with Big Brother. I watched tiny bits of the first ever series in the UK and remember nothing of it. I do, however, remember channel hopping when the third or fourth series was on and coming across what I thought was a hilarious spoof version of it. The characters were so inane, their conversations so dull, so lacking in any redeeming features, so devoid of interest that I was lost in admiration of the writers. (You know where this is going, don’t you?) The problem was that the sketch went on too long and, after a few minutes, I realised that this wasn’t a spoof; it was the actual thing.

OK, that’s not a crime. The inmates weren’t chosen for the contributions they might make to the sum of human knowledge, but the thought that people were sitting watching this night after night, finding these people more ‘real’ than those in the world around them was depressing. Then along came Susan Boyle. I know, I know, it’s a long time ago, but nothing seems to have happened since to change my opinions of it all.

By then, I was already watching very little TV, and certainly not the stuff generated by cynical exploiters of ‘ordinary’ people, so I hadn’t heard of Ms Boyle until a visiting American friend (a sensitive, intelligent, caring friend) described watching her on TV in the USA. She was careful to set the scene, talked of Ms Boyle’s dress, bad hair, etc., and how she seemed generally to be an embarrassment to the human race. Then came the revelation of her voice, and she became an angel.

So, encouraged by the friend, I duly watched her performance on YouTube – and it was very, very depressing. Not because of her. To me, she sounded fine, far better and more powerful vocally than most of those rentastars who churn out regular hits. No, I was appalled by the audience’s and the judges’ reactions to the way she looked and to her apparently gauche attempts to inject some ‘personality’ into her presence. (I say ‘apparently’ because Ms Boyle obviously knew she had helluva voice and that the people in the audience making faces at her and conveying their confident superiority over her to one another would soon be silenced. In her way, she was as manipulative as Cowell and the rest – and good for her. Her ‘manipulation’ was without malice.)

So, in the end, she triumphed. In fact, she triumphed rather too quickly for comfort. No sooner had she belted out the first couple of notes than the audience was baying its approval and the judges were doing their ‘gosh, what a lovely surprise’ faces. She was immediately ‘forgiven’ for being whatever their previous sneering at her implied.

The whole Susan Boyle phenomenon didn’t arise from the fact that she had/has that voice, but from the implied gap between it and her ‘unprepossessing’ appearance. If she’d slapped on some make-up, bought a new dress and played herself as the shy, quiet individual she is, she’d probably still have got their votes, but it wouldn’t have been good television. So the producers had to contrive the Quasimodo effect.

But why is that so depressing? Well, watch the clip and pause it before she starts to sing. Look at the carefully chosen images of the reactions of everyone else there. Without exception, there’s total scorn for this person standing before them, a preening, sneering rejection of her, a reduction of her to a figure of fun – based on what? On the fact that she has questionable dress sense? That she apes the confidence of all the other wannabes who strut across our screens? That she’s a middle-aged virgin from a small Scottish town?

I really do hope that she was canny enough to have chosen to project this image of herself deliberately. I want to believe that Susan Boyle manipulated Simon Cowell. But even if that’s true, the initial images of the baying, self-satisfied citizens so devoid of compassion confirm that her victory is a small one and that we’re losing more and more of our humanity. Those few minutes made Susan Boyle a winner, but the few seconds of pre-voice reactions and the patronising nonsense the judges poured over her afterwards took any meaning out of her victory.

The glut of reality TV shows seems designed to highlight the worst aspects of our attitudes to one another and I find it hard to think of that as entertainment.


Ann Turnbull said…
Looking at that clip again, after such a long time, I think Susan knew exactly what she was doing and what to expect. I'd like to think she manipulated them, but it's possible that they set up the whole thing and that everybody was acting.
Jan Needle said…
Unfortunately I had to put the Charles Eames chair on the fire in the recent cold snap, as I obviously couldn't burn my cardboard box and leave me and the fifteen lucky children homeless. As to Kant - how dare you? As a student of German pronunciation I won't allow his name to be uttered in my house - it's not bleeding Big Brother, is it? BTW, did you see the pic of Cowell on the Mirror website today? If I were as uncaring as a TV 'personality' I'd be tempted to call him a fat git... I hope Ms Boyle saw it.
"...viewed from a Scrabble-named IKEA chair as I scoff a tub of peanut butter ice cream." HEY! Did you hack into my home security system??

Great post. I don't understand the allure of the Kardashians and why they haven't gone extinct by now...maybe I'm clueless because i rarely watch the drivel on American TV, especially that masquerading as news.
Bill Kirton said…
I think (and certainly hope) you’re right, Ann. She’s turned out to be a canny performer, hasn’t she? There’s no denying the genuine quality of her voice. And you underline my main point – about TV’s manufactured reality – but it still seems to fool most of the people most of the time.

Jan, you should have got in touch before incinerating the Eames. I’d have organised a whip-round. Glad the kids are OK, though. And I missed Cowell in the Mirror (my copy must have fallen out of the Journal of Applied Research into Intellectual Anomalies which I use to hide it from the neighbours).

Dipika, you have impeccable taste.

Thanks, all.
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, I squirmed all over again for her, Bill - she has triumphed, though, which is perhaps the main thing - and odious though the whole 'reality' TV thing is, at least it gave her and her amazing voice a chance to shine and be acknowledged. I think this is what I believe....
Umberto Tosi said…
A Peanut Butter Ice Cream Award to you for reminding us why Susan Boyle is an underdog hero - not so much because of her gorgeous voice and singing talent, but because of her reverse shaming of the patronizing snobery of pop culture pseudo-celebs and the bleating sheep audiences. Trouble was that the corporate-celeb-snob-androids in turn exploited her to prove their largesse in allowing a non-standard, middle aged Scotswoman to have her moment of glory on their stage - while continuing to patronize her after her performance... making her the exception that continues to make them icons at everyone's expense. Stiil, however, Susan Boyle persists. I guess you can tell I don't like the show. Oh well. Pass the peanut butter ice cream please. I don't want to get up from my knockoff Eames Chair. (BTW - I confess to reality-show indulgence myself: My vice being "Highway Thru Hell" a Canadian real-er featureing stoic, rotund tow-truck operater Jamie Davis and his heavy rescue tow-truck team, alog with his competitors in litterally-cliff-hanging episodes in which they brave impossible winter elements to pull smashed up truck and cars out of harm's way along mountain highways in British Columbia. Watching, I regress to age 7, playing with my red Tonka tow truck and assorted Match Box cars, pulling them off the tracks as my Lionel Train bears down on them.)
Thought provoking as ever, Bill. I think most of these 'talent' programmes are manipulative, so nothing we see can be believed. I still watch some reality shows - the Apprentice where they're all volunteers, and none of them really come across as vulnerable. (You can see that in the after-programmes) Also The Dragon's Den, where people clearly and all too often use it for the exposure it buys their products. It's when people who are vulnerable become the prey of the great God television that I get very uncomfortable.
Lynne Garner said…
Great post.

We don't 'do' reality TV in this house. We know how it's manipulated, as we know a few people who work in TV including someone who used to work behind the scenes in Big Brother. Also we don't like the way people are manipulated and that includes us the audience. Oh and we've never and would never watch I'm a celeb get me out of here because of the animal cruelty.
Bill Kirton said…
My thanks again to Sandra, Umberto, Catherine and Lynne. The variations in your replies confirm that this genre is as negative and corrosive as I thought. (NB, not having seen Umberto’s ‘Highway Thru Hell’, I exempt its participants who actually sound as if they’re ‘real’ people.) For the rest, I’m not condemning the participants (although, Catherine, the apprentice wannabes I’ve inadvertently seen, with their questionable values and ambitions, seem terminally ghastly to me). Overall, it’s what their manipulators are doing to the rest of us that I deplore.

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