The euphemism currently in vogue to describe the latest genre of TV shows such as Survivor, Greed, The Weakest Link and Big Brother is “reality TV”, in which a cast of ordinary people, not actors, appear before the TV cameras.
Being carbon copies of US or British series, these programs show the extent to which Australia’s popular culture is copied from overseas.
The formula is, in part, that the viewer is titillated by seeing other human beings in their most intimate moments – the equivalent of sex-shop peep-shows, but telecast to the entire nation. The viewers’ voyeurism is legitimised by the medium.
According to the latest ratings, these programs have swept away the standard TV sitcoms. In recent ratings, Survivor II and The Weakest Link surpassed Neighbours and Home and Away.
For the TV networks, a particular attraction of these programs is that so-called “reality TV” help to fill their Australian content quota at bargain basement prices.
But there is another aspect of these programs which deserves critical attention.
It is seen most clearly in the contrast between The Weakest Link, and earlier game shows such as Sale of the Century, where all contestants are treated with courtesy by both the host and audiences.
In contrast, The Weakest Link is dominated by an offensive host, who delights in verbal abuse of participants, particularly those who are unsuccessful. This adds a particularly nasty edge to a show in which people are eliminated by being voted off by their fellow participants, not by getting questions wrong.
Quite deliberately, The Weakest Link makes cunning and vindictiveness, rather than knowledge, the criterion of success.
After the show’s host declares, “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”, a person has to then take the “walk of shame” after being voted off, adding humiliation to the show’s other attributes.
The same characteristics are evident in shows like Survivor, where a group of people are put into isolated and stressful situations such as a desert island or Outback Australia, and over a period of weeks, the group votes one-by-one for a person is to be eliminated, until there is only one survivor. It quite blatantly rewards manipulative and dishonest behaviour.
Big Brother is also an elimination program, in which TV cameras have been set up in every corner of a house – even in bathrooms, toilets and bedrooms – and edited extracts are shown nightly on TV. (For the truly obsessed, it can be watched live on the Internet.)
One difference between Big Brother and other such programs, however, is that the viewers vote on who is to be eliminated, and a weekly $5,000 prize is awarded to one lucky viewer, virtually ensuring an audience until the program finishes in about six weeks time. This is seen as a model for future interactive TV programs.
The sudden appearance of these TV shows is undoubtedly a reflection of the extent to which Australian popular culture is shaped by the media in the US. It also raises the question of what is happening in society when programs which reward anti-social behaviour are attracting huge ratings.
Such programs undoubtedly portray a hard-hearted, inhumane society, which punishes weakness. They reflect utilitarian values and also reinforce them.
At a deeper level, it may also reflect a loss of the ethical and moral values – the unspoken but shared assumptions which the overwhelming majority of people in society accept – which hold society together.
One commentator wrote, “This is truly a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality. But perhaps it is a reasonably accurate reflect of contemporary community and cultural norms, and perhaps it also reflects the consequences of ‘the inevitable process of globalisation’ that also has a great deal to do with winners and losers” (The Age, May 16, 2001).
“Reality TV” is not, of course, about reality at all. It is merely an excuse to portray various kinds of anti-social behaviour on TV, a medium which is entirely based on carefully constructed images.
The real problem with such programs is that they legitimise the anti-social behaviour which they portray and implicitly endorse. We know that people imitate the conduct of those whom they see on TV, and for this reason, cigarette advertisements are no longer screened. In fact, the advertising industry is based on the idea that human behaviour can be modified through exposure to visual, oral and written messages.
It is hopeless to expect bodies such as the Australian Broadcasting Authority or the ABC, which are supported to set and enforce television standards, to take a stand on this matter. They have been conspicuously silent when issues of media violence or pornography have been raised in the past. To the extent that they do involve themselves, it will be a result of public pressure.
It is important that people who see these programs join in the current debate about the messages which they convey to young and impressionable people in society.
Ultimately, however, these programs will disappear only when enough Australians switch off such programs, so that they are not commercially viable.