Is reality TV art?
Every Wednesday evening, I tutor two 14-year-old boys. Last week, the subject of reality television arose. They were surprised by my interest in the subject. Reality television is the creation of programmes in which real people are filmed in various scenarios, influenced by a production company. I can’t argue that all of it is worth watching. Supernanny, for instance, does not appeal to my desire to gain an insight into other people’s lives. This is a show about badly behaved children whose parents have given up all hope and have requested the extensive help of a television “nanny” and disciplinarian. However, I feel that my dislike for this particular show is in part because I have worked with a lot of unruly children and have no desire to relax at the end of a long day by watching them all scream and shout at their desperate and tired mothers.
The reason I enjoy reality television so much is because it constructs social situations that expose the very basic elements of human behaviour. We see anger, fear, sadness and joy represented by real people, in a setting that can be changed to affect them in different ways. The people creating reality shows can decide that two people who have been fighting for months should be “accidentally” trapped within a room together, at the moment when they are at the height of their anger. The result of this is the creation of a reality that could not exist outside of television. It is difficult to know at which point the shows are constructed by producers and writers, and at which point they are an expression of real events.
“Metatheatre” is a term which is often applied to Shakespeare’s plays and other highly respected forms of literature. It is the suggestion that, within a play, it is possible to draw attention to the fact that what you are seeing has been created by a writer or producer. When a character in a play describes the “world” as a “stage”, the play becomes metatheatrical as the character has suggested that, in fact, this is not a “world” but a “stage” within the context of a play. The audience therefore remembers that they are watching a play.
Reality television is able to recreate this effect. We know we are watching something scripted and not quite real. However, it is more complicated than metatheatre. In a play, we know who the writer is and we can try and search for his suggestions or jokes relating to the “stage” or confines of the play. When we watch reality television, what is real is not immediately made clear to the audience.