The contestants bite back

Gerry Byrne reviews The Great Reality TV Swindle, Channel Four, 2 December

It had to happen. It's like when you're a child and you have this boy-mouse and a girl-mouse. Oh dear. Big Brother mates with Survivor, with some additional genetic material from Enron and the Cook Report…

Take a bunch of young hopeful TV-presenter wannabes, blag a classy audition suite, a private island in the Thames on the basis of free advertising, take on some eager camera crew who'll work for the kudos, tell your hopefuls to divest themselves of all ties - flats, lovers, commitments - for a year, ask them to turn up penniless but passports at the ready. What do you get?

Duh!

And your task is, in your teams of ten, to make a million pounds, starting from nothing, in a year. The ultimate twenty-first century capitalist product: asset-light, built on spin, oiled with raw hunger for celebrity, the promise of money, money, money at the end of the rainbow. How can it fail?

One of the draws of reality TV is putting yourself in the picture. How would I react to being buried up to my waist in a tub of maggots? Who would I get on with? Who would I avoid like scabies? Drama does this imaginatively, lets you experience emotions, dilemmas, choices, through made-up characters, gives you a deeper experience of reality. Reality TV is like microwave drama: real characters in a made-up environment, enacting speeded-up, overheated emotions - over-stimulating but curiously tasteless and unsatisfying.

So how would you react to finding yourself penniless, homeless, jobless and told to make a million, at the whim of an under-resourced would-be TV producer, who might well be a total fantasist?

I think they did well. One group went back to the home of the volunteer cameraman, took stock and decided they'd make their programme anyway. Only it would be about the experience of being set-up. They contacted the press. They set up a confrontation with their would-be producer, Nikita Russian. They got on the TV news, and as a result Channel 4 made this film, using some of the footage they'd shot for their original reality TV show. They tracked down the producer, who'd used his family and friend's addresses (without telling them) as part of his scam.

You could read it as a parable of twenty-first century capitalism, all inflated promise based on illusion and spectacle, where those who have been picked to be exploited turn the tables, take over the means of production, and thus achieve what the exploiter promised but had no means or intention of delivering. Or you could see it as a post-modern fable questioning the meaning of "reality" in "reality TV". Me? I'd like to nominate Nikki Russian for the Turner Prize for services to situationism.

Comments

Re: TV: The contestants bite back

Other things were also striking in this intriguing programme. The contestants, cameraman and 'presenter' who decided to try and make it anyway and sell it to Channel Four were clinging with visible tenacity to the idea that come what may they'd emerge from this experience rich and famous, more importantly famous. Our culture has become saturated not only with fame-obsession (everything is defined as the pursuit of fame - nobody wants to be a singer just because they love singing; it was 'FAME Academy'...) but a strangely downgraded, Warholish conception of fame. We watch the parade of mediocrity that was Pop Stars: the Rivals knowing perfectly well that the best these kids can hope for is to have a short-lived career singing pre-packaged pop almost entirely under someone else's control - if they're lucky and don't simply implode, like Hear'Say, because in a year or so people are calling them wankers in the street.

The contestants in Nik Russian's con had been prepared to give up everything, including their homes and in some cases partners, because of the lure of fame. (Fame more than money, because not everyone can win). They believed that someone who called himself a Producer must be telling the truth, and if the words Channel Four were bandied about like magic it all must be real. They'd been had. But, even more disturbingly, they hadn't been swindled for some definable reason. Russian seems to be a fantasist more than a con man. He wanted fame, too, and he got into trouble because once it all started falling apart he either didn't know how to tell all these people, or he was too lost in the fantasy to realise he ought to. One of the strangest parts of the programme was watching Russian hang out with the people he had betrayed asking them to see things from his point of view and feel sorry for him.

The fame culture is visibly corroding and destroying popular music and having a terrible effect on television. How many times can we watch Pete Waterman's eyes fill with tears as he tells some poor girl who thinks she's Mariah Carey but is utterly average that she is wonderful ('you sang that better than Whitney' one of them was told, preposterously) before millions of people start to really believe than any old half-way decent bit of karaoke constitutes real 'talent'? Hey - Gareth Gates can actually play a few chords on the piano, he's obviously the next George Michael...

A lot of the 'contestants' in Nik Russian's swindle were doing it, they said, as a route to being a TV presenter. This in itself is really, really odd. Of the thirty plus people who've participated in Big Brother, four that I can think of have managed careers as TV presenters, and only one of them (Brian) with a particularly high profile. (He's employed to be screamingly camp on Saturday morning TV). (Craig does some DIY show in the afternoons - on a satellite channel, or something). The rest - who knows? Most people who are TV presenters got there by some other route, mainly drama school I imagine, so the odds would seem to be higher if you do that. (But then, I suppose even a one in thirty chance of making it, if you can get selected, is higher than if you train as an actor. On the other hand, presumably most people who train as actors want to act, rather than host MTV shows, so that cuts down your competition a bit).

Reality TV can be fun to watch - though I have to admit I increasingly find the pleasure is quite sadistic, and by far the best bits of Pop Stars are the people who are excruciatingly awful; indeed, there's even a kind of pleasure in the weekly confirmation that most of the 'best' ones are excruciatingly awful, too. The pop stars thing looks like it's nearing the end of its rope (the two rival groups' record sales combined are less than the Spice Girls' Two Become One), though they'll think of something else. The scary thing is wondering what they'll come up with. Before long we'll be voting which terminally ill patient we think should be given the drugs...

Craig's DIY programme

Now, be fair to Craig. His daytime DIY programme goes out on BBC1.
e-mail: JBooth9192 at aol.com

Re: TV: The contestants bite back

I haven't seen the programme, but a few points on "fame culture". For a start, this isn't as far as I'm concerned something new as Clive seems to make out. In television, has everyone forgotten "The Word" (chance would be a fine thing)? Bathing in sick, drinking piss (or was it the other way round), eating worms, etc., I think the part of the series was called "People will do anything to get on TV" - very postmodern, ironic, etc., haha. And it wasn't even about getting famous - unless 30 seconds on Channel 4 after chucking-out-time counts as "fame", though the concept of what one review of "Popstars" et al I read (epd medien 12/2002, published by the Lutheran, -CoE like- German churches' press agency, in an article lamenting the demise of once-great British broadcasting) called "Sado TV" was then new, and without hundreds of channels the likelyhood of getting "noticed" must have been higher in the early 90s than it is today.

Indeed, perhaps this is the point of such "talent" (or freak) shows - with so many channels, the staff have to come from somewhere. It doesn't matter how good (or not) those on-screen are, very few people are going to be watching anyway, and amongst the muck there might be a bit of brass - if you, the viewer, are very lucky.

So if all these people want to be "famous" I don't understand why they want to get on the telly. The days of everyone at work having watched the same programme the night before are virtually over, making the such sought-after "fame" impossible. So why then? Perhaps because there isn't , for most people, any realistic alternative - becoming a brain transplant surgeon, a mass murderer, a talented musician, a great novelist, or even the next Osama bin Laden for example are not things the great majority are in the position to - or want to - become.

But when your neighbour and their pet rabbit have been on Big Brother, if not before, hopefully none of this rubbish will be interesting anymore! At least not interesting enough to watch every episode for an hour a night, paying for text messages and live 24-hour digital access, etc.

Matt Heaney

P.S. Which terminally ill patient should be given the drugs? Terry Christian (where is he now? Presenting a DIY show on digital?) or maybe Pete Waterman. Or Greg Dyke? Who's the controller of ITV?

Re: Fame Academy

Point taken about its title, but I built up an opinion that Fame Academy was a bit better than some of the others. Partly this was because they had to write their own songs, rather than sing endless identikit cover versions. Partly because some of the contestants do actually have real talent. In contrast to, say, PopStars: The Rivals. (BTW, I find myself transfixed by the One True Voice single 'Your Sacred Trust': it is *so* utterly flimsy, dull and generally rubbish).

Unfortunately, though, my illusions in Fame Academy crashed on the night of the final, which was won by the singer (David) who conformed best to the model of a harmless, unchallenging, pleasant singer of wallpaper music. Personally, I voted for rock-chick Sinead, but am quite prepared to admit that Lemar is very talented.

What depresses me about this is that this result was decided by public vote. So we can't blame it on the 'esperets' or the TV companies. Unless the public are really that gullible or easily manipulated. Which I suppose is possible.

Janine
e-mail: JBooth9192 at aol.com

Re: Fame Academy

I've heard rumours of an insiderish nature that the outcome is pretty much fixed anyway, at least for Pop Stars. The voting figures aren't really that high. I think Fame Academy was getting a million or so - I could be wrong. But's a lot less in reality anyway when you consider that almost everyone who votes does so more than once.

The rot in the music biz is very deep. Time was record companies would sign five album deals not expecting to see much result until the third album. Now, even if you've got a whole album recorded, you've got three singles to make it if you're lucky, or the company will drop you (plunging you into an appalling limbo, since they own the recordings...)

I cling to the idea that good songs and real singers are so basic to culture that popular music is bound to survive all this and re-emerge in some new splendid glory. I cling even more tenaciously to the idea that this will be personified by my boyfriend.

Matt's right that the crapification of popular music isn't new. I remember the 1970s. But something new has happened in the past few years - measured for instance by the way 'pop stars' talk about their work. The crushingly mediocre martine McCutcheon, asked why she covered 'radio radio' or whatever it's called made no effort even to make up some story about listening to it on her mother's stereo as a kid; she just said it was her A&R man's idea... Honest, I suppose. But jesus.

A few more points on reality TV

Firstly, I think there is a distinction between the pop-music-talent-show programmes (eg. Pop Idol) and the watch-people-living-in-a-goldfish-bowl programmes (eg. Big Brother). I think the former are awful, whereas the latter could be interesting.

The music ones are having a noticeably harmful effect on an area of popular culture. Music is being damaged by this crap. Goldfish-bowl ones, though, I think have the potential to be quite interesting. I don't think there is anything intrinsically wrong with observing how other human beings live, especially when they are willing participants. OK, Big Brother is not exactly an exercise in anthropology, but that is more because its makers have gone for the ratings and the front covers of the glossies. Imagine if the BB house was *not* populated entirely by young, good-looking, loved-up single people.

Secondly, back to the Pop Idol types. Isn't this basically about co-option? In the sense that capitalism will take *anything* marketable and, erm, market it. So pop/rock can be a medium of enormous creativity, of vocalising dissent, alienation, etc. Its history and background comes largely as the voice of the oppressed. But people consume it (and its paraphernalia) by the truckload, so it gets co-opted into the system. "Turning rebellion into money", as Joe Strummer would say. (Ditto gay culture and the pink pound.)

Finally, did anyone read Julie Burchill's column in Guardian Weekend today about Reality TV? Her line of argument was basically that all pop music is manufactured, therefore blatantly manufactured pop music is OK. Plus the even more ludicrous: bands that last a long time are boring, therefore bands that last five minutes are great. Rubbish, I thought.

Janine