Really Reality?

For those of you who know me well it is a fact that my favourite TV show of all time is Survivor. The combination of watching real people interact in an unlikely social experiment, people from a variety walks of life and add money into the mix then you have yourself a primetime addictive show (now in its 28th season I might add). So what is it about reality television that makes watching everyday people much more interesting than leading our own everyday lives? Is it all real? What makes a reality show worth watching? And is there is an additional classification we can give shows in the genre of ‘reality television’ that distinguishes a programs style or is it all the same?

To explore reality TV I want to compare two different program styles so I’ve chosen Survivor (any excuse will do!) and One Born Every Minute. Survivor started in 2000 and has been running 2 seasons every year with varied success (mostly successful) as a game show format. 18 strangers are placed on a deserted island with minimal supplies and over 39 days compete in challenges for rewards and immunity. Contestants are voted off at tribal councils and at the end of the season the sole survivor wins $1 million. The prize at the end of an episode of One Born Every Minute is a lot less, however it’s far more precious.

One Born Every Minute is a UK observational/fly-on-the-wall/docusoap/documentary/reality series which follows patients giving birth in a maternity ward. Generally each episode follows about 2-3 women through their birthing journey from when they arrive to when they leave. The show is intercut with interviews from the staff, patients and their family, additionally with the use of music and voiceover the show has quite a dramatic and emotional impact giving it a “soap opera-like” edge. This is a great example on how reality TV can sometimes border on documentary and drama.

These reality shows are stark contrasts to one another, yet they are still in the same category of television, they’re alongside Dating Naked, Big Brother, Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, Next Top Model, Australian Idol, MasterChef, The Block, Find My Family and the list goes on and on. So what do they have in common? On a philosophical  level you could say that Survivor and One Born Every Minute is about individuals embarking on a journey with challenges and rewards along the way and at the end they win the ultimate prize…except you have to pay tax on one! The biggest similarity holding all these shows together are the “real people” who the audience can relate with. This is why there is so much reality TV on primetime television as its cheap (no actors or set required for most) and audiences are keen to ask the ultimate reality TV question – what would I do in that situation? A. Hill from Reality TV defines the genre in its location between the borders of information and entertainment, documentary & drama. The observation on human behaviour through the looking-glass of its sub-genre.

Sub-genre’s for reality TV include surveillance (What Would You Do?), fly-on-the-wall, docusoap, reality game, reality talent (Big Brother) and celebrity reality (Celebrity Apprentice) just to name a few.  These sub-genre’s differentiate in terms of show format and these are the real classifications for reality television. There are always people who argue that some sub-genre’s are fake but I believe in that in all reality television there is some level of dramatic engineering. As a massive Survivor fan I have attend conventions and spoken to the contestants (who are very real everyday people) and they admit that it’s not all what it looks like, you can’t talk while the camera is off, you sometimes have to reshoot shots if it’s is vital to the shows story and competing in challenges, giving birth, starting a fire takes a lot longer than what you watch in an hour episode. Reality TV genre is defined by what it permits, and that is usually everything real – it’s the levels of dramatic engineering that affect it’s sub-genre and believability.

AMC vs HBO: does it really matter?

My favourite TV shows are those with complex narratives and characters that you can either learn to love or hate. Those shows with its distinctive high quality that makes me think that it’s the longest movie I’ve ever seen….however instead of waiting 2 years for the sequel I can’t even wait until next week for the next episode. These shows include Sex & The City, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire, Girls and my all-time favourite Game of Thrones. All of these are by HBO, but then once in a blue moon you get other shows with that same distinctive quality and I am shocked to find they are not HBO. Take Mad Men for example, it is produced by AMC (American Movie Classics) cable network which I never heard of till I looked it up and realised it is host to my other favourite show Breaking Bad. So it’s not just HBO, but why as a network does it stand out? Has the reputation of the institution that these quality TV shows belong to outshine what really matters  – the quality of the show? What is the relationship between brand and quality when it comes to television series? And once and for all I would like to define (for myself more than anything) what is quality television and is there some sort of formula to create it?

AMC only started airing TV shows in the past decade and has had huge success in its short time in the sun. AMC shows differ from HBO as their episodes aren’t necessarily jam packed with action but their complex and multi-layered characters are addictive enough to keep you around for the next episode. In an article by Tim Appelo he describes the success of AMC compared to HBO in the Emmy Awards “The secret to AMC’s recent domination of the Emmys is a well-studied formula whose data has been drawn directly from HBO’s own stellar record: You win awards not with scads of cash but with character-based shows that aim high, fit the brand and attract talent.”

This TV series success formula slightly differs for each institution, AMC is very particular and has never seemed to miss the mark on what show will catch on. They have become their own TV auteur taking on shows with their own cinematic history to draw from and highly serialized dramas that make it easy for viewers to relate to. It’s not just shows with a gripping pilot; it’s a series with rich potential to explore cinematically.

Mad Men is an excellent example of an AMC style series and how the relationship between the brand (AMC) and the quality has let the series flourish in its own right. Mad Men is set in 1960s New York and follows protagonist Don Draper and others around him working at a ruthless and demanding advertising agency pushing every character to their creative limit.

Being set in the 60s there is prime opportunity for the show’s creator Matthew Weiner to explore the issues of the time, such as gender, equality and nuclear family values. The show misses out on many other relevant period issues such as race, sexual orientation, politics and freedom. However, by focusing on fewer elements Mad Men is able to increase its quality in the detail. Weiner worked under David Chase (The Soprano’s) and from that learnt to adapt his mise-en-scene to the time period the show is set. There is great detail in Mad Men’s creative elements such as set, costume, language and camera work. He has instilled throughout the series to create a modern world within its own context, this further contributes to its addictive nature.

I believe the brand a TV series associates itself with assists in its initial buzz, however it’s the quality that always transcends the brand and rightly so. Quality is determined by the initial concept, originality, relatability, attention to detail and most importantly the characters. The most successful characters have a discoverable history that reveals itself as more history is created.

Girls & The City

Over the years HBO has changed along with the developments of the world to dare new and provocative material, appealing to the wider gender base and produce complex narratives that in turn create an audience-TV relationship that didn’t exist before. People always talk about HBO breaking the mould when it comes to TV dramas (and its content) but do they ever talk about how it’s changed within its own institution. Compare The Soprano’s, the hit series that started the HBO genre with the more recent Girls. Not only do you have a completely different audience target but the levels of authenticity have increased leaving behind the fantastical world HBO created. But The Soprano’s and Girls are way to stark a contrast; let’s compare Sex & The City with Girls instead. Many articles are written on the similarities and differences but I want to focus more on how they are a reflection of the evolution of the HBO genre.

HBO started in 1972 and has developed into one of the most successful and long running payed television facilities in the United States. According to Funding Universe HBO’s programming offers a variety of high quality television viewing including movies, comedy specials, documentaries, quality TV series, music concerts and sports specials. Sex & The City started on HBO in 1998 with varied success based on its narrow target audience and controversial content. As a woman who really struggles to figure out the male species I really quite enjoy it. Its controversy lies in its explicit language, frequent sex scenes, nudity and oft times its shallow outlook on men, women and relationships.

The show has notoriously broken various taboos; during the first season the 4 main characters openly discussed anal sex in the back of a cab. Judy Cox from the Socialist Review explains that its just part of the evolution of television content “in the same conventional terms as women used to discuss losing their virginity in the 1950s.” It only seems a natural evolution that women could openly discuss their graphic sex lives as they would off the silver screen. However, in the same note it took an entire season to break such a conventional mould.

In comparison in the first episode of Girls Hannah (the protagonist) is having awkward spontaneous sex with Adam (her boyfriend) and whilst in the “doggy style” position he nearly puts it in the wrong hole. Hannah then goes off on a tangent explaining “The wrong hole thing, I don’t want to do it now, like if we did I just want to talk about it and just figure out – it’s just not comfortable for me…” This compared to Sex & The City is used as a comedic tool for characters development. This just goes to demonstrate how the conventions of television viewing have changed.

Girls was aired by HBO in 2012 and is now in production for its 4th season. The creator Lena Dunham is also the writer, director, producer and female protagonist of the series. It’s similar to Sex & The City as it follows 4 different women through their struggles and triumphs of living in New York City. In fact I believe you can draw some character parallels. Hannah and Carrie act as both of the shows protagonists, selfish and struggling writers, Jessa and Samantha are sexuality confident and sometimes cocky women, Marnie and Miranda are the logical friends and Shoshanna and Charlotte are the conservative traditional types who see their lives as a fantasy.

Girls vs Sex & The City

The main difference which distinguishes these two shows is that Sex & The City is aspirational whereas Girls is authentic. This reflection demonstrates more than just a social acceptance of once taboo conversation topics, it also reflects the growth of the HBO programming to more relatable shows that appeal to the once ignored demographic of mid 20’s women. The quality of HBO will always remain, however what makes it quality goes beyond how it’s made to what its content is. The complex narratives in HBO shows has focused its attention on real character development so it’s more appealing to audiences.

Girls definitely stands out as one of a kind on the HBO programming reel with it’s certain level of realism but it’s similarities in programming characteristics lies in it’s narrative, characters and development. Girls demonstrates a shift in HBO programming attention as the institution is attempting to strengthen it’s relationship with national culture to appeal to all demographics. It’s strengthening the HBO brand.

TV is my drug, I can’t get enough of!

There is no denying that TV has changed in the last decade due to technology, accessibility and the great variety of shows that are out there. However, the most fascinating development for me is how television has not only become engrained in certain cultures, but has also become a culture of its own.

Shows are made like movies with in-depth narratives, fantastic quality and this high level of addictiveness. We no longer yearn for more at the end of the movie. We instead become encapsulated by TV shows always craving more, wondering what’s next and because there is so much more too it and we are finally becoming satisfied.

The documentary Hollywood: The Rise of Television Series (2005) sums up this growth well through discussing which shows have stood the test of time in terms of high end TV dramas and how the slow demise of censorship on screen has let shows gain a greater sense of reality than ever before.

Before I explore which were the most popular television dramas demonstrated in the documentary (and some of my own opinion) let me first define what television culture is. The oxford dictionary defines culture as “The ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”

I’m sure some of you know when you begin watching a television series you get drawn in after each episode reveals yet another shocking plot twist, another cliff hanger, another reason to watch the characters development, you want to watch just one more, you begin to know the characters as real people and then yet another cliff hanger again and again – it becomes addictive.
The culture of not watching a television series on television but rather having marathons dedicated to a particular show, attending conventions, themed parties and participating in cultural jokes and references has become quite common in todays society. The amount of emails I receive from friends who sign off with “xoxo gossip girl” is actually quite embarrassing. This is all a demonstration of how wider society is drawn together through one very unhealthy social behaviour…addictive TV drama series.

One of the first television series that was blessed with an addictive nature was the Soprano’s. The complex narrative allowed audience’s to develop their own personal relationships with the characters going beyond the 45 minutes of each episode. Other series include The Wire, Game of Thrones, the West Wing, Sex and the City, Break Bad and Orange is the New Black. The list goes on.

The biggest reason these shows were so successful was because of the slow demise of television censorship. The more realistic the shows became when demonstrating sex, violence, drugs and swearing the more relatable it became to audiences. Not only were the imaginations going wild for viewers the writers and creators were given more creative freedom giving way to a generation of high quality details (and addictive) TV drama series.

There is no censorship in reality so why should there be one on television? In an article written by Graeme Blundell he discusses the appeal of reality in television series and how from that, reality TV became a cheap way to exploit this audience demand for realism.

Personally, my favourite drama television series is Game of Thrones. There is enough a sense of reality that it is believable and there is also enough creativity to satisfy my imagination.

Is The Project Broadcast or Post-broadcast Television?

To appeal to a wider demographic, the way news is delivered has gone beyond “plain” broadcast television and now a variety of post-broadcast news shows are popping up on nearly every channel. However, the line between broadcast and post-broadcast I believe is still vague as there are some shows where the professional delivery of original news is masked in its post-broadcast manner. One show in particular that sparks much debate is channel 10’s The Project. To help distinguish what features of the show lead to debate, I will be comparing it with a channel 9 regular afternoon news show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The way news is delivered is an important part of the cultural public sphere. It acts as a forum where citizens can be informed and debate topical issues which in turn can lead to societal change. It distinguishes what is the public and private sphere and is delivered (ideally) in a non-biased fashion.

Traditional broadcast television is what is known as your daily intake of news, the anchor of the show addresses the camera in a formal manner highlighting the news in order of importance coupled with multimedia interviews and photos. Sometimes the formal news presenter conducts interviews as well. In a traditional Channel Nine news segment addressing global issues the anchor formally introduces the segment then continues onto a video further explain the current situation. This clip can either be from another media outlet or a pre-recorded interview summarising the situation.

Characteristics of this broadcast television include an anchor as the authority, a formal setting at a news desk, other presenters for sport & weather, scheduled segments, live news is the voice of the people, remains unbiased and is often the first to report on breaking news stories. The biggest difference between broadcast & post-broadcast is the sense of urgency and liveliness. If a natural disaster occurred somewhere in the world you would want an informative & current presentation of the information. Whereas during post-broadcast if current news is breaking it doesn’t have the same sense of fluidity of information and can often be masked by jokes.

On the other hand we have post-broadcast television. This is a very different way to digest the news as it is delivered in an informal, casual and often humorous manner. Take The Daily Show for example, it’s hosted by Jon Stewart and is aired on the comedy channel and is known for its political comedy. More often than not the host goes off on rants when discussing an issue as to how it has affected him or making fun of how other media outlets portrayed a particular issue. This is more appealing to “the people” as instead of being a voice of the nation he is being the voice of the audience. Not only is this format informative it’s also refreshing when shedding some reality on daily issues.

Post-broadcast news is part of the media convergence as so much of it is online, it’s interactive with hashtags and a twitter feed running on the bottom. Additional characteristics can be how instead of sections being in order of importance it is rated on order of comedic value, the setting is sometimes informal like a lounge, the hosts use colloquial language and structure their news segments on a narrative structure all to appeal to the viewer in a more engaging way.

Now which one of these sounds more like The Project? The project delivers the news headlines in order of importance, has a formal set and uses formal language. However, in between news segments the anchors often laugh at the issue, discuss it colloquially and often times host, Peter Helliar, interjects comedic segments making fun of what someone has said in an interview. I like to think that The Project is broadcast as it highlights all the main daily issues and then some by providing information on the latest scientific breakthrough. I feel informed and at the same time entertained that I can watch the news from the initial unbiased angle then feel involved in the debate afterwards. Isn’t that what the news is all about? However, unlike most broadcast television they don’t present breaking news and it isn’t truly broadcast television without being completely objective. So technically we have to class it as a post-broadcast show with News Delivered Differently.

International Television, Making the Ordinary, Extraordinary

There are not many forms of media that can reach and engage such a large international audience, as television does. The thrill that you are one of millions of people watching an international event that makes the world stop – the royal wedding, when a tragedy strikes, New Year’s Eve celebrations, sporting events and most popular of all, The Olympics. It’s that sense of liveness that engages millions of viewers across the world, the event is happening now and you are as informed as someone across the world through the medium of television. It has the ability to make the ordinary the extraordinary with such a large scale audience and by watching it you are participating in the international community.

There are also some types of people who watch such events because of the element of unpredictability. Many people caught their breath during the royal wedding when the wedding ring nearly didn’t fit on Kate’s finger, when a car crashed during formula 1 or when an Olympian falls off the balancing beam. I, thankfully, am not one of those people. Whether you are watching to see what goes wrong or a genuine interest in an event there is a global curiosity which builds suspense.

This curiosity is also evident in day time television, traditionally during the morning news show. Similar to post-broadcast the setting is casual with hosts interjecting dad jokes and witty banter to start the day. Personally this type of show makes me cringe. The unpredictability in the flow of the show is a surprise I could do without in the morning. As segments of the show tend to jump between infomercials, news headlines, interviews and entertainment there is no sense of narrative that comes from a rehearsed global event. The biggest difference between day time television and international is that day time is also known as background television. Either way our cultural digitisation has brought audiences big and small together through honing in on our human curiosity. It’s a similar obsession we hold about celebrities – this idea that we can be a part of something that will be famous makes people want to join in.

A particularly good example of this is the London Olympic Opening Ceremony. Millions across the world tuned in for one of the most spectacular and well-rehearsed opening ceremonies. It touched on all great British cultural icons that have influenced the world including their history, sport, music, celebrities and even fashion. The ceremony made the ordinary, extraordinary. One particular segment called “Frankie & June say…Thanks Tim” followed two young British teenagers dancing through different era’s of music from the 60’s onwards. It was a tribute to Tim Berners Lee , the inventor of the world wide web. The segment involved interactive multimedia projected onto a large prop house with pre-recorded footage of inside. This is a great example of how such global events can affect people on such a domestic level. This global entertainment is entering the domestic space bringing the individual into the global community.

The London Olympic Opening Ceremony

Personally, my favourite international television event was the Will & Kate’s Royal Wedding. The media hype leading up to the event gave the impression that it was an occasion not to be missed. It is typical that all television with an element of liveness has a great amount of media convergence – media advertising beforehand to engage the viewer and the use of social media interaction throughout. All this amounts to making ordinary events extraordinary – a wedding of two royals, someone winning a race and the official opening of a sporting event become must watch international news.

Linking the Film Industry and Web 2.0

When looking back on how movies have changed in the past 20 years, we have gone from embracing all 8 of the Beethoven adventure movies and period pieces such as Dances With Wolves to demanding hardcore reality in Zero Dark Thirty and 3D masterpieces such as Life of Pi and Avatar. So what changed? Apart from the technological developments, web 2.0 has created public forum where opinions can be expressed dictating the success of the movie. Interacting with social media is now more valuable than a films marketing campaign.

In a recent global media conference Dive Into Media, CEO of Sony Michael Lynton discuses how the industry has changed thanks to “social media and its effect on the post-moviegoing experience… with Facebook and twitter, viewers can actually affect the way a movie performs.”

Websmart TV summarized this new interactive level of success as the “architecture of participation” and that the “key to its success is in empowering the user” and not controlling their online input.

Continuing from my blog last week including Penn Schoen Berlands’ market research on television, the poll also revealed how 72% of people on social networking sites post about movies they have seen. Furthermore a third of people have seen a movie because of something they had seen on Facebook or Twitter.

From Social Zence

However the proof is in the pudding. Crimson Hexagon (social media analyst) recoded 930, 000 tweets about box office sensation The Hunger Games during its $152,500,000 opening weekend.

The film industry has now become reliant on feedback from web 2.0. However what will happen when social media becomes a thing of the past or no one wants to see a movie in a cinema anymore?
Till next time