As once-popular reality shows desperately clamber for ratings, it seems it’s more complex drama that the audience seeks now.
Big Brother; Celebrity Love Island; Pop Idol, now X Factor; Fame Academy; Don’t Tell the Bride; Shipwrecked; Britain’s Got Talent, Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. The list goes on. Circa 2000, we were desperate to just watch. Anybody. Do. Anything. The first Big Brother stirred something deep inside the British public – we wanted to do what we dare not do on the tube: watch people going about their daily lives without us having to turn away awkwardly, scared of meeting someone’s eye. We wanted to watch without being watched in order to feel like we were the normal ones.
Over-saturation is an issue. Formats have been sold and resold; repackaged and formatted across the world
This year’s Big Brotherthreatened to become the least watched EVER to air as numbers crashed diabolically. X Factor is stooping to new lows to claw viewers back – Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell are back, in a desperate bid to boost ratings. Cole was only recently on Graham Norton trying to kick the rumour mill into overdrive, with comments directed at Louis Walsh. “We’ve never got on”, she told Graham with a wry, knowing smile. A dying genre wouldn’t need to resort to these tactics: the beauty of the first Big Brother (2000) laid in its simplicity – it was of course a gimmick, but the politics weren’t orchestrated: it was about as real as reality TV ever was.
The Voice has suffered dying ratings throughout its brief life on BBC. The 2014 series relied on superstar names such as Kylie Minogue to boost its popularity. It didn’t work: audience figures fell by 600,000 and Kylie decided not to re-join. The 2014 series of Britain’s Got Talent was the least ever watched in its history. So what’s turning the great British public off so much? The rise of the internet means we have more control over what we watch. Over-saturation of a genre that has had every bit of life beaten out of it in every format possible globally is one reason. Formats have been sold and resold; repackaged and formatted across the world.
As an audience, we like variety: there’s only so long we can watch strangers in a house eat, sleep and pick their noses. This is why producers of Big Brother this year went to extraordinary lengths to try and stir things up a bit: from ridiculous tasks such as dressing housemates up as babies, to putting members of love triangles back in the house, it’s all got a bit, well, orchestrated. In the same way, X Factor’s sad stories (get the violin out) have become all too predictable. The Kardashian series is scripted down to the last word and it’s left viewers hungry for more.
After ten years of reality shows, there is a new demand for complex, well told stories
After ten years of shows like those mentioned above, there is a new demand for complex, well told stories, the kind we used to make here in the UK. The success of Nordic Noir has made producers realise that audiences can take on complex, multi-layered stories centred in reality: religion, homosexuality and politics are built into themes that, although not purely autobiographical, are based on real life events and social issues.
There to Here (set in 1990s Manchester, centred round an IRA bombing), shown recently on ITV, was reminiscent of 1990s series like Clocking Off and Playing the Field, showing we have come full circle and that the average viewer is craving a dose of reality – albeit, a fictional dose of reality. The 90s seems so long ago now it’s become fashionable to revisit: Euro 96, IRA bombings and the Labour landslide election would have been too early to revisit in the early 2000s.
Hinterland drew inspiration from the Nordic Noir tradition. Set in Aberystwyth against the backdrop of mountainous terrain, the series was entirely fictional, but was steeped in realism: rural living, the human condition and dark themes abound (murder, religion, sexual abuse). Like many of these detective dramas, the main success lies in the exploration of human relationships and how these play out in times of drama. In The Bridge, traits like Saga’s Asperger’s, accompanied by her lack of social intelligence as well as Martin’s adultery, provide an interesting insight into how vulnerable and foolish humankind can be: this is comforting for us. It’s what we used to get from reality TV.
The web has diluted the format, plus the over-saturation has led to a demand in stories that inform, educate and open our minds
In the Widower, we saw psychopath Malcolm Webster manipulate three of his wives. He got away with the murder of the first two, but the second managed to get away. The coverage of the TV series brought the real man to life: how could such a man get away with such atrocities, and what was it that made him tick? The fact that this actually happened is fascinating; producers can embellish and add themes – another dimension that reality TV lacks. Human beings have always read novels, and in the same way viewers will always watch fictional drama, but reality TV will not stand the test of time as the current crisis suggests.
The exploration of human relationships continues to fascinate and compel: we need to watch in order to understand our own selves, but the rise of the web has diluted the format, plus the over-saturation has led to a demand in stories that inform, educate and open our minds. Reality TV – like its subjects – can keep trying to reinvent itself, but there’s only so many makeovers they can do before the surgeon and finally the undertaker will need to be called in.
Featured image: Channel 5
Inset images: BBC; S4C