How reality TV shaped the modern world

Donald Trump owes his power to the proliferation of ‘reality content’ since the turn of the century.

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We’re all living in Trump’s reality show now. Credit: Gage Skidmore

Most of the explanations as to why Donald Trump won the US presidential election have focused on the political, social and economic. Pundits have pored over issues like globalisation, rising inequality, Democrat mistakes and Russian interference to understand how the star of NBC reality show The Apprentice between 2004 and 2015 is now the most powerful man on Earth.

Barely any light has been cast on cultural factors and in particular, the impact of a ‘reality content’ culture that has gradually, but inexorably, undermined the foundations of rational thought and debate. The explosion of media channels, both on TV and online, over the last two decades has boosted creative expression and the free exchange of ideas, but it has also provided a platform for the most banal, tacky and self-absorbed content conceivable. In this context the victory of Trump – a man who revels in his banality, tackiness and narcissism – seems less surprising and more the logical result of cultural forces.

Reality content laid the groundwork for men like Trump to create a ‘post-truth’ age rife with fake news and misinformation. In a world where virtually anything is considered worthy of broadcast, and where anyone can present themselves as an authority or soothsayer, the verified fact has lost much of its potency.

We are all living in Trump’s reality TV show now: an odd kind of meta-reality where the usual construct of political separation has dissolved and the President speaks directly and unfettered to the world, able to spark hysteria with a single tweet. It is worth revisiting the recent history of reality content to understand how we got here, and how we can break free from a system that indulges our worst instincts.

The descent

Reality TV lacks any firm definition but, to borrow from Wikipedia, it refers to any programme that features real people (rather than actors) behaving in supposedly unscripted ways. It differs from documentary because its primary purpose is to entertain, rather than inform, but there is often some blurring of the lines between these genres, just as there is between reality TV and gameshows.

In some ways you just know reality TV when you see it. The key selling point of the programme is the ‘reality’ (the personalities, the relationships, the conflict) rather than the journalistic or artistic value of a documentary, or the specific format of a gameshow.

There was a time when exploring this ‘reality’ had a value all of its own. When the first series of Big Brother appeared on UK television in 2000, it was viewed as an intriguing social experiment that put human behaviours and interactions under the microscope. In the many series that followed (including celebrity editions), the programme became increasingly puerile, concerned with artificially stoking conflict and with providing a platform for people who want to get famous for the sake of it.

Big Brother’s degeneration is a metaphor for how reality TV as a whole has evolved. Today ITV has an entire channel dedicated to this content in the form of ITVBe, which hosts the likes of Mob Wives, Ladies of London and the Real Housewives of series. The latter follows the lives of groups of affluent women across an arbitrary, but seemingly endless spread of locales, including New York, Miami, Atlanta, Potomac, Beverly Hills, Orange County and in the UK, Cheshire.

For broadcasters it is interchangeable, cheap TV and a low-risk way of filling the schedules. When viewing figures inevitably drop off in response to the repetitive simplicity of these shows, there’s always another ‘real’ group of people to be filmed at minimal expense.

Such programmes continue a trend set by ‘scripted reality’ shows such as The Hills, The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, which conditioned viewers to a post-truth mindset long before the term was commonplace. They normalise the idea that what we are seeing is ‘real’, when it is patently false or at least, heavily staged.

The effect of these programmes has also been to elevate the personal above everything else, as each episode is only concerned with the personal dramas, relationships and inflated conflicts affecting each participant. In this sense, this type of TV has reinforced the narcissistic impulse of social media, which gives carte blanche to all manner of personal preening and self- aggrandisement.

It is no surprise then, that the 2016 US Presidential election became a reality show in its own right, with barely any substantive discussion of policy or ideology. Instead, the news was dominated with stories about Hillary’s emails, Hillary’s health, Donald’s general behaviour and demeanor, and of course his tiny hands.

Rediscovering rigour

So what can we do about a culture that has debased itself to this level? First of all, the media – both social and traditional – has to take some responsibility for allowing banality to thrive, simply because it is easy entertainment. There are already signs that media brands and owners are starting to reassert a degree of rigour in how they transmit content, aware of the crisis point we have reached and the need to clamp down on post-truth activity in all its insidious forms.

This won’t stop the proliferation of dubious ‘reality content’ – nothing will – but the backlash should encourage schools, families and individuals to switch off the noise and rediscover content, both fiction and non-fiction, that is concerned with bigger ideas than just the self.

In an appearance on BBC’s Question Time last year, author Will Self was asked to explain the rise of Trump and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who was also on the panel. He argued that neither man was akin to Hitler or Stalin – genuinely revolutionary figures who wrote political tomes and carefully crafted their ideologies.

Instead he described today’s hard right demagogues as “grubby little opportunists who are riding the coattails of history”. Trump’s vehicles were The Apprentice and Twitter. Farage is barely ever off our TV screens in one form or another. He’s even appeared on a Gogglebox spin-off and campaigned alongside TOWIE’s Joey Essex.

We used to be less accommodating of such people. The original version of The Office, first broadcast in 2001, was predicated on the idea that a man as ridiculous as David Brent would never really achieve the fame and recognition he craved. Today Katie Hopkins, a woman much more offensive and transparently attention-seeking than Brent, has a mass platform as a leading commentator for the Daily Mail, having first appeared on the British version of The Apprentice.

We need to rediscover some of the cynicism we appear to have lost when it comes to ‘real’ people, and realise that not everyone is deserving of a soapbox, no matter how loud they shout.

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