The reality of reality TV

Love or loathe it, reality TV is here to stay. In the beginning, the spying cameras provided a candid insight into our lives. Participants were given little or no incentive (financial or otherwise) so they were not in it to win it. Taking part was what mattered. How times have changed…

The first UK reality TV show was The Family, which documented the lives of a family of six from Reading in 1974. Series such as the USA's The Real World – which began in 1992 and is still running – set out to depict everyday experiences of ordinary folk. The focus changed in 2000, when the first series of Big Brother burst on to our screens. Ten strangers living together had to carry out a series of tasks in return for rewards, with a £70,000 prize awarded to the last man (or woman) standing. Each week, viewers voted to decide which participant was to be ‘evicted’ from the house. This was followed by Survivor, in which participants were marooned on an island with little but their wits to live on.

Since then, reality TV has snowballed. The stakes are high, with participants competing for life-changing prizes: money, fame – with the chance of launching a new career – and even love. The genre has been implicated in everything from racism (remember the spat between the late Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother 5?) to divorce and death.

From the glitz and glamour of Strictly Come Dancing to the ‘smell what sells’ grit of The Apprentice, there’s something for everyone. Perhaps the biggest surprise hit has been the Great British Bake Off. In the fight to avoid a soggy bottom, tempers can hot up in the kitchen, but competitors tend to get their just desserts.

It’s a controversial medium, with some questioning the morality of pitting people against each other in a contrived environment for the sake of boosting viewing figures. Is overnight fame healthy? Does being in the spotlight damage participants? What messages does reality TV send to young people? And what does it say about us, the voyeuristic viewers, that we enjoy seeing people ridiculed and exploited?

What I think about reality TV

Rosemary Stephenson spent a year living on the island of Taransay, in the Outer Hebrides, as part of BBC1’s reality TV series Castaway 2000. Here’s what she has to say about reality TV:

Roger and boys on TaransayOnce the initial chaos had calmed down, we settled into normal life and we became rather boring. The first series of Big Brother had just started on Channel 4 to huge ratings and suddenly Castaway looked rather dull in comparison. I think the production team was under pressure from the BBC to make it look more exciting, so they started trying to manipulate the story.

We weren’t being filmed constantly as people are now on reality TV shows. In fact, most of the time we weren’t being filmed at all, so we quickly forgot that our lives were being made into a television programme.

They’d interview us once a month, then use one comment out of context, which often made me look like a real battleaxe. It was unnerving being portrayed in a certain way and feeling we had no comeback.

They’d try to get us to talk about random topics such as hair washing, instead of talking about subjects of our choice. This caused conflict: some people felt it was their duty to do what they were told. The other half of the community – us included – felt the BBC was lucky to have us there, making millions for them. We weren’t prepared to jump through hoops to make their TV programme look more interesting.

The whole dynamic became very complicated, with all sorts of behind-the-scenes stuff going on. It was absolutely fascinating, but some people couldn’t cope with it. I hadn’t anticipated the complexities of that at all. It is no surprise that nothing like Castaway 2000 has ever been attempted again. Nobody has attempted to film people for a year since…

They wanted to put in a webcam in our main living area, but we refused because we didn’t want that level of intrusion. It’s difficult to imagine now, because the concept of that sort of isolation is gone. You can’t imagine living without constant communication. We had one satellite phone for medical emergencies, but we weren’t allowed to use it for anything else. Apart from that we were completely out of touch and there was no way we could make contact with the outside world.

The Ben Fogle effect

We soon realised that Ben Fogle, now a TV presenter, was their key guy. We all reckoned he was there because he wanted a career on telly. We suspected the production company had decided that with him in advance. He was always the spokesperson and we teased him mercilessly about it. I think that must have been quite hard for him. Most of us weren’t at all interested in being TV stars.

There was lots of interesting everyday material they could have included in the programmes, such as us home educating the kids or successfully growing vegetables, but although they filmed it, they showed relatively little of our positive achievements. They tended to focus on the negative stuff, such as the person who was about to leave the island, which they thought made more entertaining TV.

All a big fix?

I don’t watch much television, but other reality shows make me feel both appalled and fascinated. I know enough about how they are made to know that what we’re shown is simply one version of events.

After being on Castaway, I watched the next series made by the same company, which was set in New Zealand. It made me cringe. It was a competition and the participants were gradually voted off. I could see they’d decided to dispense with all sense of ethics and the idea of doing anything remotely ideologically sound.

Rosemary's fellow castaway and photographer/film producer, Philiy Page, kept a photo diary on Taransay. See her work here.

Read more about Rosemary's year on Taransay.

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