Shooting People: adventures in reality TV by Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen

Is hating 'Big Brother' a matter of moral scruple or simply snobbish disdain?

With Big Brother slouching into the schedules for a fourth - good God, is it only the fourth? - series, it is high time that someone gave serious thought to the problem of "reality television".

Why are so many gripped by the spectacle of people much like themselves sitting around in an artificially constrained environment for weeks on end? What effect do such programmes have on those who watch them, and who take part? The minority who claim to be not merely bored, but outraged by the genre - does their anger reflect a genuine moral problem, or is it disguised disdain for the amusements of the masses?

To these questions, Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen offer only muddled and partial answers. While their polemical tone makes it plain that they disapprove of reality television, it is not at all clear that they know why. In consequence, Shooting People is a good deal less helpful than it might have been.

The confusion is seen most starkly in the chapter dealing with the early years, when variations on franchises such as Big Brother and Survivor were tried out in a number of countries. The authors interviewed Charlie Parsons (who as inventor of the Survivor format can claim to be the father of "reality TV") and Peter Bazalgette of Endemol, the company responsible for Big Brother.

As a result, they get side-tracked into discussion of the law of copyright as it relates to television formats, and the importance of Big Brother's cross-media presence, which generates revenue through mobile phones and the internet as well as television. These issues are interesting enough; the difficulty is that, by discussing them neutrally and at such length, the authors push the ethical problems into the background. Ratings and revenue are felt to be justifications in themselves.

A couple of chapters later, though, when the authors discuss the role of professional psychologists behind the scenes of reality television, their disapproval couldn't be plainer. This seems unfair. Whatever conflicts of interest are inherent in their position, the psychologists who lend a spurious legitimacy to Big Brother are hardly more guilty than the people who make the bloody thing. The big difference is that their duties, and hence their failures, are much easier to pin down.

In a similar way, the chapter dealing with the effect of reality TV on its participants concentrates on the possibility that contestants will suffer lasting psychological harm. But this line of argument seems to imply that if nobody suffered psychological damage, Big Brother would not be problematic. That is surely not right. The problem with Big Brother is that it turns its participants into commodities and its viewers into voyeurs. It enforces a debased, debasing conception of human relations.

Brenton and Cohen touch on this issue, in the atrocious creole of theory-speak and journalese that characterises the book: "These pocket worlds are playgrounds for selves immersed in the retrenched, apolitical apparatus of a selfhood of first-persons". (Can you imagine a selfhood of second persons?) But they seem to view television as a reflection, rather than an agent, of social change.