Fake breasts, fake tan, fake storylines?
The Only Way is Essex was a ratings winner – and now it's won a Bafta. As the latest 'structured reality' show, Geordie Shore, hits our screens, Adam Sherwin explores the genre that's taking over TV
Tuesday 24 May 2011
Distinguished Bafta veterans stared in horror as a whooping parade of fake tan and cleavage tottered across the stage.
The victory for The Only Way Is Essex at the television industry's annual awards marked a breakthrough for the latest "reality" genre which has viewers hooked and executives casting around for the next quick hit.
The Only Way Is Essex, or Towie as it is known to addicts of the ITV2 series, has made "structured reality" the buzzword at every channel controller's meeting. Watched by a cult late evening audience of 1.5 million, and another 500,000 catching up online, Towie, with its cast of young, shouty Essex folk fighting a daily battle against good taste, will be remembered as the show that brought the world "vajazzling".
The perfect mid-point between Big Brother and Coronation Street, Towie's collision of documentary, soap opera, and "structured" storylines acted out by real people, has made the Sugar Hut in Brentwood as familiar to viewers as Albert Square's Queen Vic.
The local population are quick to point out that the beauty salon-based subculture exposed inside Essex's golden triangle of Buckhurst Hill, Chigwell and Loughton, does not accurately reflect life in the county.
But the viewing public voted in record numbers for the tight-knit Essex mob who opened their every private conversation to the cameras.
Central character Lauren Goodger, who has launched her own range of tanning products, certainly believes she's as worthy of a Bafta as Sir David Attenborough. She said: "We've made such a great TV show and people have voted for us.
"I think we do deserve it. It's not easy. It's not 'do a bit of filming and that's it'. We put a lot of hard work into it. It's our life."
Towie has already produced a "posh" challenger in E4's Made In Chelsea and tonight MTV unveils Geordie Shore, Newcastle's take on Jersey Shore, the music channel's reality series which was set among a group of Italian-American men.
The genre created to fill airtime on America's youth-based cable networks is now taking over British screens.
"The genesis of Towie was a phone-call five years ago from MTV," said Tony Wood, creative director of Lime Pictures, the Liverpool-based company which produces the Bafta audience award winner. "They wanted to make a British version of their show Laguna Beach and set it on the Cheshire coast."
Laguna Beach, which chronicled the life, loves and social hierarchies of a group of "senior year" students in Orange County, California, spawned a 2006 spin-off series, The Hills.
With its narrative of whirlwind romances and unwise cosmetic surgery, The Hills followed fashion student Lauren Conrad as she moved from her parent's home in Orange County to live in a suspiciously high-end apartment in Los Angeles with three friends.
The characters' model looks hinted to the audience that The Hills was a heightened, version of an aspirational LA, high-fashion lifestyle that most couldn't hope to emulate.
Audiences for The Hills gradually fell off, with the show being cancelled after six seasons, but Conrad and her cohorts have gone on to achieve real-life success in the fashion world.
That didn't prevent accusations that the characters were actors all along. The (unwritten) rule for structured reality is that whilst the locations and scenarios are often instigated by producers, the interaction between the characters is real.
Daran Little, the "story producer" on Towie and Made In Chelsea, is also a regular writer for EastEnders and Coronation Street.
Towie cheerfully acknowledges that scenes are set up, with locations often moved for the benefit of the cameras. So are these shows simply as fake as Lauren Goodger's tan?
"We'll steer the characters to certain places. Before the cameras roll we'll say 'remember to ask what happened last night'," said Mr Wood. "In the edit, I'll cut words out of sentences to make it more 'writerly' and give it that soap opera quality. But we don't make anything happen that they don't want to happen. The emotional narrative is real."
Structured reality has one major advantage for broadcasters in an era of cost-cutting. Once producers have thoroughly researched the social group under the microscope, it's relatively cheap to point cameras at the participants. And the stars of Towie don't have agents demanding huge appearance fees – yet.
Towie's stars weren't paid for the first series and negotiated a modest appearance fee for the second run – a situation which may change now they are Bafta winners.
"I'm incredibly grateful to the cast but we can spread our net a bit wider if someone did leave. Essex is a big county and I've always said the star of the show is Essex," said Mr Wood.
After relying on Katie Price and Peter Andre for its reality "soap opera", ITV2 was nervous about the response to Towie, with its cast of complete unknowns.
Claire Zolkwer, ITV's commissioning editor for entertainment, said: "As a commissioner, the holy grail is a new genre – something that is channel-defining and ground-breaking; and on ITV2, it had to be brash too in order to punch through the terrestrial channels.
"We worked together with Lime to hatch a plan that would borrow from many genres and it eventually became a hybrid, as I see it, of drama, reality and comedy. The comedy/ warm angle was so important."
Television executives don't have to wait for the viewing figures to discover if their "structured reality" show is a hit. The Twitter explosion during the launch episode confirmed that the programme had instantly connected with its target audience.
"Twitter has already given us some pointers on which bits of drama the Made In Chelsea audience like," said David Williams, Channel 4's commissioning editor for entertainment.
E4, which screened The Hills, designed the new series, set amongst a group of wealthy Sloanes, as an "aspirational, glamorous" British response the MTV hit. But producers need to be social anthropologists to create a structured reality hit, Mr Williams argues.
"These shows work best when you have a tribe of people who are rooted in one geographical location and already know each other. It's the opposite of Big Brother where you threw together a group of strangers and hope that they form relationships."
So after gate-crashing the Baftas, will the genre now transfer from late night slots on digital "youth" channels to mainstream terrestrial television? "I think structured reality is here to stay," said Daran Little.
"It doesn't have to be highbrow, it's entertaining. If it's funny and it's good drama and people watch it, I think it's got a right to be (on television)."
ITV2 would fight hard to keep the third Towie series away from its terrestrial big brother, believes Mr Wood. But Lime Pictures now has a hit "brand" on its hands and is said to be seeking a regional spin-off, with Liverpool a prime candidate.
Structured reality: From Laguna Beach to the Tyne – via Beverly Hills
Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County
The original structured reality show came in 2004 as a reaction to the hugely popular US teen drama series The OC. Following the social lives of students at Laguna Beach High School, it exploited the voyeuristic tendencies of the teenage viewers of MTV, and their interest in the lives of the affluent residents of California. Notable storylines included the Lauren/ Stephen/Kristin love triangle and the rivalry between clique leaders Alex Murrel and Kristin Cavallari. The show received much criticism due to the manipulation of scenes, and staged interactions among the cast members, but helped create a new genre.
Spin off from Laguna Beach follows Lauren Conrad as she moves from her parent's home in Orange County to study fashion in Los Angeles. Lauren lives with her best friend, Heidi Montag, but they soon part ways due to Lauren's dislike of Heidi's boyfriend Spencer Pratt. The show has a particular interest in the love lives of its cast, as Lauren's unsuccessful relationship with Jason and the professional sacrifices she made for him was the main storyline of Season 1. Heidi and Spencer's relationship became infamous through their manipulation of the media and Heidi's highly publicised plastic surgeries. The show was cancelled in 2010 after six series.
The Only Way is Essex
Described as "Britain's answer to The Hills", The Only Way is Essex portrays the lives of twentysomethings as they live and party in Essex. Narrated by Denise Van Outen, the show has gained a cult following, winning the YouTube Audience Award at the Baftas on Sunday.
Follows the lives of eight housemates as they spend their summer in the Jersey Shore area of New Jersey. The show focuses on the so-called "Guido" lifestyle of working-class Italian Americans, and again tends to focus on the sexual exploits of the cast members. The show has garnered record viewing figures for MTV.
Made in Chelsea
Documents the affairs of 12 young socialites in West London. The central character, Caggie, is a part of another love triangle storyline involving Etonian Spencer Matthews. The show recently received criticism in the same vein as The Hills, as the first episode appears to have been staged.
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