We wanted to ridicule and judge our reality TV subjects, so why did we lash out at Benefits Street?
Recently, Channel 4 began screening a television show called Benefits Street. It lead to hundreds of complaints from viewers, most of whom claimed that it portrayed certain Brits in a bad light, and that it could lead to a witch hunt of those on benefits. Owen Jones, author of Chavs and columnist for The Independent, took to Twitter to denounce the shows producers as “the pits.” Others have suggested that C4 balance things up by commissioning a show titled Greedy Bankers Street.
To some extent, the reaction is understandable. But can we really expect anything less from the television we helped to shape?
Has Channel 4 really gone too far with a television show that seemed a fraction away from starting a riot? The amount of complaints would suggest so. But television has come a long way since the halcyon days of gentle BBC comedies, Bruce Forsyth and Blankety Blank. In between On the Buses and Benefits Street, we have had hundreds of shows about fat people, real sex in an artificial compound, singers suffering mental breakdowns in front of Amanda Holden, documentaries on meth-addicted Thai workers, and a spoof of a child getting trapped in space with a paedophile.
Television mirrors Britain’s ethics – or is it the other way around? The main irk for some is that Benefits Street comes with socio-political baggage. It comes with a sharp political agenda that has made viewers feel uneasy and angry. This is no longer a fat person stripping naked for us to have a good gawk. This is real. To some extent, the reaction is understandable. But can we really expect anything less from the television we helped to shape? For a lot of people, television would seem to be the main source of their knowledge. I’m not referring to BBC4’s exceptional documentaries on art, literature, history or politics. I’m referring to everyday matters, such as the latest issues discussed on Loose Women.
For example, when is it the right time to dump a man? Life issues, you could call them. When Joey Essex learned to sneeze on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, perhaps a few viewers also learned to sneeze. But Benefits Street should not be the go-to place for information on Britain’s benefit system. Unfortunately, it is for some. That’s where a lot of the danger comes from. People come to understand racism via bad Jim Davidson jokes, as opposed to making their own informed decisions away from their television screen. They come to believe that all those on benefits are shoplifting scum because a bad television show painted things that way.
The question is: Have we shaped television, or has television shaped us? Have we made television dumb, or has television made us dumb without us noticing, fastening us in a box-shaped cocoon of debauched, pixelated revelry, a cocoon we only awake from when we feel threatened?
30 years ago, reality television as we now know it didn’t exist. Ancestral reality TV shows were a little bit more gentle
30 years ago, reality television as we now know it didn’t exist. Ancestral shows of reality television, such as It’s a Knockout, certainly contained the by-now established theme of a bunch of willing participants who are ready and willing to humiliate themselves in front of television cameras for a little bit of cash and exposure. But those shows were a little bit more gentle. We didn’t know the people who were falling over, or getting bashed over the head for their troubles. We just saw the act. It was a bit like a two-dimensional Keystone Cops film, in which a lot of falling over takes place without the audience ever getting to know the characters.
But modern day reality television exposes us to ordinary peoples’ personalities. We get to know them inside out – and laugh at their insides. We take pleasure in their fame-hungry behaviour, their lack of knowledge, and even their mental problems. Now they’re not falling over anymore, because that is no longer funny. Now they’re telling us they don’t know how to tell the time, and we think that’s funny instead. The British sense of humour has changed (or did television change it?). It has become more cynical. Long gone are the family-oriented sitcoms, such as Keeping Up Appearances, to be replaced by explosive American imports, such as as Jackass, in which grown men staple their testicles together. There is a strange curiosity on behalf of the audience.
With shows like Benefits Street, however, things get slightly more serious. It isn’t a show which is supposed to amuse us. It is meant to provoke us; perhaps even to stir us into action. Is it wrong to offer a politically biased take on a socially hot issue? Everyone has long known that the media, and television in particular, can distort reality should it choose to. It can make The X Factor look like the American Dream. Television can say to people, “give us your soul and we’ll give you 15 minutes of fame.” Television, therefore, comes before integrity. And once integrity has been smashed to pieces, anything goes.
Ethics has become a redundant word, confined to Urban Dictionary as ‘something that existed before Channel 4’
Moral boundaries are widened. Ethics becomes a redundant word, confined to Urban Dictionary to be defined as ‘something that existed before Channel 4’. Once the ‘contestants’ involved in reality television no longer care what happens to them, why should the executives? People might pipe up and say television has a moral duty. But television doesn’t seem to have a morality, and if it did, lawyers have had it annulled. It transcends morality the way Nietzsche proposed many years ago. It has become the Superman who can do what it wants, when it wants, and however it likes.
Screening Benefits Street was wrong. The show offers a very provocative, misjudged and mishandled view of those on benefits in Britain. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Britons have been tainted with a bad brush in light of this show. Does Channel 4 need to care? Is it setting a dangerous precedent for more shows of a similar nature? Who knows what is next up the channel’s sleeve.
The British television audience has an insatiable curiosity for trivial matters, which has led to such television programmes, and which may lead to more. The British TV audience wants to see people flipping out when Simon Cowell tells them they can’t sing; it wants to see people getting naked in artificial compounds and admitting to being transsexual. But the same audience can’t handle things when it feels itself threatened. Benefits Street has done that. It has set a new precedent. It has threatened people. It is corrosive television in a way different to the likes of Big Brother. Big Brother was about humiliating and alienating individuals – Benefits Street attacks collectives.
Not all British television audiences wanted things to end this way, of course. Some still hold a torch for the days of Des O’ Connor. Either television has changed us, or we have changed television. One thing is for sure – if you’re sucked into believing all that you see on Benefits Street is indicative of the benefits lifestyle in general, and if Channel 4 provides you with all your knowledge on everything from atoms, to racism, to why your mum can’t stop eating, to your political preferences, then you’re part of the problem.
All images: Channel 4