The August Riots

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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Reality Britain: How long until reality television shows dominate our television scene?

The past decade has seen a sea change in television broadcasting. Shows such as Big Brother, X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing have begun to define television as we know it. Whatever side of the debate you consider yourself to occupy, it is almost undeniable that the traditional programmes to which viewers became accustomed in the 1980s and 1990s are gradually being phased out. Time Magazine critic James Poniewozik asserts that, rather than being an anomaly in the televisual field, reality shows are "simply another genre", such as sitcoms or dramas. Indeed there are those, such as Today online contributor Michael Ventre, who believe that 2011 will in fact sound the death knell for reality programming. Big Brother has already fallen by the wayside, fortunately in my view, for over the past ten years it has promoted all that is wrong with society; vanity, undeserved fame, banality, selfishness and egregious self-promotion. Yet X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, arguably ITV's flagship programmes in its current malaise, are still going strong. Indeed X-Factor, with the significant weight of media mogul Simon Cowell behind it, has come to define the musical, particularly chart, agenda in the United Kingdom with winners and runners-up rarely failing to break through into the 'big-time' and achieve significant commercial success. The major worry would be that original broadcasting is being supplanted across the board, and the programmes that are really valued, creative and memorable, will soon cease to exist in the face of the incessant march of reality television.

As mentioned earlier, some believe that reality television is in fact on its way out, although what form of programming will replace it is unclear at present. In the United States there has been criticism of American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, both of which attract a high proportion of viewers, but perhaps this is merely a sign of the times? Perhaps the public on both sides of the Atlantic have become sick of reality programming, a staple of television schedules for at least a decade. Perhaps what we are seeing is a public looking to the past for a solution to the problems of the present, and potential difficulties of the near future. I for one certainly hope so, for I believe Britain's monumental cultural heritage, of which a large part is owed to the various original, innovative and relevant programmes produced in the United Kingdom over the past half century, rather than the recent influx of cheap to produce, endlessly viable and largely creatively-moribund shows such as X-Factor. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such programmes, my only complaint is that as time goes on far less energy goes into ensuring original and creative broadcasting, and quality is substituted for financial viability. For where would television in this country be had producers, television companies, executives and creative divisions not taken a chance on shows such as The Office, Only Fools And Horses, Yes Minister and Blackadder? Although perhaps risky at the time, each of the above has achieved significant critical acclaim and an enduring popularity that reality shows often fail to obtain; for most it is more a case of the latter, if only in a somewhat fleeting sense, than the former.

One could argue that what has been happening to our television over the past decade or so is merely an almost-exact reflection of the phenomena which has drastically altered the British music scene. In the early-mid 1990s the chart was far more unpredictable, varying in its winners and losers, and based primarily around artists producing original, creative music that they had written themselves following an extensive period of touring and a variety of attempts to 'make it' in the 'big time'. Whereas nowadays chart music is dominated by mass-produced, heavily advertised music catering primarily to one specific style which more often than not is forced upon the buying public by the various interests that the music companies represent. One could say in recent years, music has become less about art and creativity, and more about art and instant gratification, that is to say, temporary and fleeting chart success. Sadly the same has happened to British television. By no means am I trying to suggest that the 1990s was some sort of 'golden age' in television, although some may argue that the flourishing of British popular music in that particular decade was something out of the ordinary, and indeed rather special. However television appears to be going only one way; in five years’ time, although Michael Ventre vehemently disputes this point of view, I predict that we will have far fewer programmes of the calibre and originality of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, Outnumbered and Gavin And Stacey, and more shows along the line of X-Factor, television designed to make millions overnight with little creativity involved. Now I certainly do not want to get rid of programmes such as X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, in fact I must profess to have watched both somewhat regularly. I am merely lamenting the demise of the sitcom, a television genre often subjected to some criticism and under-representation, and the dearth of original programming available to the viewers of today. With the current, and possible future cuts to BBC funding we may be about to say goodbye to a whole host of 'risky' programmes in favour of shows guaranteed to engineer a high proportion of the prime-time audience, that are both commercially viable and sometimes creatively thin, the rest of the time bankrupt of originality.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Bee Hive City, Share TV, The British Comedy Guide

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