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 ReportÂ…

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.

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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?

Sightings of Terry Christian !

A reliable source tells me that Mr Christian works as a presenter on "Granada Men & Motors"...obviously I can't confirm this, as such disgusting filth is kept automatically off my screen (ie I can't remember the PIN number to remove it).

Clive perhaps underestimates the extent to which the Big Brother format is already informing the organisational practices of the left. What is the SLP, if not a very large BB game? It's just a shame that Scargill gets to both make the eviction nominations, vote on them AND win the main prize.

Have the AWL been thrown off the CPGB's version of "Temptation Island" yet ?

Richard Bayley

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

Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

Janine writes that "Pop Idol" type shows "are having a noticeably harmful effect on an area of popular culture. Music is being damaged by this crap." Sorry to state the bleedin' obvious, but doesn't this involve a rather rose-tinted look at the pop music and charts of yesteryear (ie the music of Janine's youth)? I can remember WL magazine a few years ago featuring a debate between Belinda and Clive (I think) along the lines of "movies ain't what they used to be", with much the same basis in nostalgia (but without the illusions in the radicalism of The Clash....).

I think that the current media predominance of talent contest pop artists is underscored by the collapse in UK singles chart sales. Just comparing Xmas No.1's, this year sales are down 40% from last year, in a market that's been declining for years. Since it's only the 7-14 year olds who buy singles these days, it's no surprise that artists aimed at them predominate.

I could go on for a long time about how what is now the "classic american songbook" ( eg Robbie William's "Swing When You're Winning", for those readers who aren't as sadly obsessed with popular music as me) being assembled under strict formulae on Tin Pan Alley, or how Motown's production techniques mirrored Detroit's production lines (christ, they even taught Marvin Gaye how to clench his buttock muscles on the last few bars of a song, something even beyond Darius), but I suspect that the "pop music is all crap now" arguments of 30 and 40 somethings is based on nostalgia.

I find it odd that Janine sides with the behemoths of Prog Rock, the "bands that last a long time" against the Warholesque 15 minutes of fame spirit of Punk. In today's world, more varieties of music are being bought and listened and listened to by adults in Britain than ever before; the threat of the Net has seen whole back catalogues of old music released at reduced prices, whilst both the most obscure oldie and the most experimental new dance tracks are available to download (more often than not for free) at the click of a mouse button. This diffusion of sources and music types means that they don't register with the charts, but it makes for an incredible range of old and new music being bought and/or listened to these days.

I say leave the kids alone....unless they murder a favourite song of mine.

Richard Bayley

Re: Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

Richard is right up to a point. But I think Janine's general point - I made the same one - is still right, too. There HAS been a change in the culture of record companies, for example, over the past decade or so, making it much harder for talented people to be properly developed (as I mentioned before, the days of five album deals are pretty much extinct). And there is unquestionably a shift in the self-image of young 'pop stars'. I know you can refer to the production techniques of Motown - in a sense the jackson Five were every bit as manufactured as S Club... But come on, Richard: Marvin Gaye and Darius? These are not comparable entities. I think you can define away something real and bad which is happening in popular culture.

For the record, I did debate Belinda in an old WW about whether movies had got worse - she said they had, I accused her of rose-tinted spectacles. A casual viewing of TCM, Carlton movies, BBC 2 of an afternoon, or whatever, in which often quite obscure B&W movies are shown, reveals that Belinda was right and I was wrong. Of course there used to be many execrable movies made. And there are still many good ones. But something has happened to the culture of movie making. It goes, to some degree perhaps, in cycles - and the bankruptcy of Film Four, which tried to go for big-budget uber-commercial movies and failed - may prove to be a blessing in disguise (though not for the many people made redundant). There has always been a commercial imperative in movie making, and in the days of the classic Hollywood studio this was no less true than now, and great films were usually made by subverting the system, not because of it. But I think not to register the flattening out commercialism of modern movie making is to miss something important.

Re: Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

Perhaps I should narrow down where I disagree with Clive and Janine, and point out that I am infinitely better informed about pop music than films. What we seem to be arguing about is whether there can really be an "aesthetics" of pop culture, and what it should be based on. Clive makes two comments, which he regards as presumably self-evident, which completely pass me by. In an earlier contribution, he mocks the very notion of Gareth Gates being the new George Michael, and in his last one, upbraids me for seemingly comparing Darius and Marvin Gaye; "These are not comparable entities", wites Clive.

Why not, unless you think that Michael and Gaye are in some sort of separate "artistes" category? The reality is that both have their origins as Pop Idol style manufactured acts, one of whom went on to achieve a good measure of artistic credibility with a change of style, whilst the other got to duet with Elton John. It is doubtful whether Gaye would have even got the chance to put together "What's Goin' On" if he hadn't married the bosses' daughter early in his career, enabling him to to get the pick of Motown's songwriters and producers to establish his "top dog" status at the company (Jimmy Ruffin and Mary Wells were not quite so fortunate).

Dennis Potter spoke lovingly of "the potency of cheap music", which he anchored so much of his drama in. I can't think of a better phrase, and I bow to no-one in my determination to keep buying and listening to vast amounts of old soul, R&B and reggae. With Northern Soul especially, I find myself being able to buy now without first hearing quite successfully, through a little knowledge of not just performers, but labels, recording dates, producers and songwriters etc. By looking for "artistes", you just end up denying what the music is - the product of a basically collaborative industrial process - and start pretending that the likes of George Michael have some sort of inherent musical worth.

We should celebrate the death of the charts, leaving it to the 8-14 year olds, and realise that there is now easier access to making and listening to all sorts of music than ever before. There is probably more creative and exciting music being produced and broadcast out of one Hackney towerblock these days than the whole UK industry produced in the days when Phil Collins and Elton John were getting their ten album multi-million deals.

Richard Bayley

Re: Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

I don't think I have a rose-tinted view of the music of my youth. In fact, at the time I pretty much defined my musical taste as being *against* mainstream pop music. I thought it was crap then and I think it is crap now.

I'm also definitely not siding with 'long-running' artists against short-lived ones. It is obvious to me that how long an artist has been going is not the point: it's how good the music is. The Jam split up at the right time; The Style Council should have called it quits after 'Our Favourite Shop'; The Kinks should have split long before they finally, painfully did. I just think Julie Burchill's argument was illogical and banal - I think the opposite argument would be too.

I think Richard is going too far down the road of Julie Burchill's other argument - well, it's all 'manufactured' in some sense anyway, so even if you got it produced by a sausage machine, who cares? Hey, *I* care.

Pop music can be highly creative, it really can be a medium through which the "angry/ passionate/ alienated/ political/ talented/ intelligent young person" can express him/herself. If the industry and the market suppresses that - if it shunts it aside in favour of music designed by managers and promoters, if it will only back you if you fit rigid criteria - then that is a bad thing.

And as for those Hackney estates ... Our Tenants' and Residents' Association (of which I am Chair) provides rehearsal facilities for young musicians on the estate (in Hackney). And I never tell them how much better it was in my day.

Janine

e-mail: JBooth9192 at aol.com

The difference between Marvin Gaye and Gareth Gates

When Marvin Gaye sings 'Let's Get it On', I feel horny. When he sings 'Heard It Through The Grapevine', I feel hurt. When he sings 'Abraham, Martin and John', I feel sad.

When Gareth Gates sings anything, I feel nothing. Except possibly sick.

Janine

e-mail: JBooth9192 at aol.com

Re: The difference between Marvin Gaye and Gareth Gates

But that's not irrelevant is it? I'm borrowing someone else's point here (Matt Cooper's), but it's the difference between a cottage industry and a Fordist process. Certainly, that Pete Waterman, for instance, isn't comparable to Smokey Robinson is part of what's at issue.

Re: The difference between Marvin Gaye and Gareth Gates

To amplify my previous point:

I said before that I think Richard is defining something important out of existence. Of course it's true that Motown, for instance, was run according to capitalist principles, Berry Gordy was out to make a buck, etc - and it was exploitative, sometimes scarily so, of its artists. Etc.

But look at the music it produced.

Something else was going on there, surely. I don't mean to imply that everything they did was wonderful, that there were not bad results of commercial pressures, or whatever. But if the proof of puddings is in eating, surely it is apparent that no meaningful comparison can be made between early Motown and Pop Idol. Why? I'm sure there are many reasons, not all of them to do with the music industry itself. (Perhaps - I don't know enough about this to be sure - the market competition from Stax, Atlantic, and 'Philadelphia' played a part, too. I'm not sure what my point is here - something to do with the crossover of R&B into mainstream pop music...?)

But something has started to rot and turn gangrenous at the heart of popular culture - something which of course was always there, but used to be subordinated to (sometimes) or anyway interconnect differently with creativity, talent, songwriting, emotion - in a word, art. I don't mean either that no art is possible now in a popular form. I mean that Richard's focus on what is similar is misleading.

And by the way, I said George Michael was a better singer, not that his music was necessarily better. I do think George Michael is an extremely good singer. Gareth Gates sings like a constipated rodent. Bless him. (I think Will Young is a much better singer, for that matter, although his version of Light My Fire is a rip-off of Jose Feliciano's, and the word 'fire', he should be told, does not have a Y in it).

Re: Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

Sorry, Richard, but collaborative process or not, George Michael is an immensely better singer than Gareth Gates, and while it may conceivably be true that with the right songwriters and producer Darius could come up with a new 'What's Going On', forgive me if I am sceptical. Of course some artists have greater 'inherant musical worth', and the notion that they do not strikes me - as a professional artist, though not in the music industry - as insulting drivel. In my line of work - film and television - we collaborate on an even greater basis, I would think, than in music; no amount of splendid collaborators will magic a great script into existence.

Was Stevie Wonder manufactured? As a kid, clearly he was - that's how he got his name. But that he was able to produce some marvellous music in his twenties was not an accident of collaboration or nepotisic marriage. Indeed, on much of his best work he isn't collaborating with anyone, but playing everything himself. The same is true of the early Prince.

I think it is doubtful how true new technology is genuinely democratising in the making of music. To have the right sounds etc you need to shell out quite substantial amounts of money on equuipment (certain plug-ins can be downloaded free, I think - but you need a Mac g4 double processor to play them). Less than the latest sounds won't do. Much music is made on less sophisticated equipment, but that's the type of thing which involves only sampling other people's music. I don't knock that per se (and I love a lot of music which does that). But it surely has its creative limits.

The cult of the DJ strikes me as problematic, too. It's great that people have access to making music. But it's a problem if it downgrades other aspects of music making.

Re: Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

I'm sorry if Clive feels insulted by my views on Pop music, but he's really not comparing like with like between drama and popular music, not least because drama has about a 2,500 year head start (The more I think about it, the "newer" the form of popular music as we now understand it is, compared to the folk and minstrel idioms that preceded it). Unfortunately, the discussion hasn't got much further than Janine saying that Gareth makes her feel sick and Clive asserting again the virtues of George Michael ("Club Tropicana" and "Last Christmas" included?). All of which is quite reasonable, but necessarily subjective - "the potency of cheap music" again.

Of course, some pop artists have more talent and range than others; yes, I do prefer Marvin Gaye to Gareth Gates: neither of these points, which Clive and Janine seem to consider the crux of our argument, have much to do with my original points, which argued that the idea that "Pop Idol" and its ilk are ruining and degrading pop music is wide of the mark, that the kids on these shows are no less talented musically than the behemoths of the music biz, and that the pop music format doesn't lend itself well to expressions of individual artistic genius, being almost from its birth a product of an industrial-style production process.

Clive makes a reasonable point about some hi-tech equipment; I was thinking about the fact that a demo recording for a friend's band was mixed round my house using free downloadable software, with a CD copy available by the end of the evening, with copies posted to Net music sites at the same time.

PS Actually Clive, I think you're probably wrong on Stevie Wonder - he WAS a child genius, who sang and blew harp like an angel from 11 years old, and was writing brilliant songs in his early teens. Yes, the 1970s virtually single-handed albums (esp. "Innervisions") are in my personal Hornbyesque top ten albums, but don't you wish there had been more people involved (principally to say "no") when he did "I Just Called to Say I Love You"?

Re: Pop ain't wot it used to be...?

Richard makes some good points, and frankly I could have lived without 'Isn't she lovely' for that matter. I wish drama's two and a half millennia head start cut more ice with ITV commissioners.

Pulling rank?

'I wish drama's two and a half millennia head start cut more ice with ITV commissioners.'

Wot?

Sappho was banging out lyrics at the same time as Euripides and Aeschylus were being drama queens.
e-mail: office at workersliberty.org

Re: Pulling rank?

Its a sad fact that we have no idea whether the tunes were much cop, though, what with written musical notation being a late starter. I've always thought of her as sounding a bit like Gloria Gaynor.

PS why have the older cadre of the AWL not used this valuable space to moan about Dylan going electric?