Reality TV: watching the defectives

With Channel 4's 'Big Brother', the most toxic variety yet of documentary voyeurism hits our screens. But why do they even pretend it's an investigation of the human condition?
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The Independent Online

Bored with hospital dramas, pet programmes and facile DIY shows? Then, hey, why not turn the tables and point a camera at yourself? "Never!" I hear you cry though this, according to commissioning editors and producers across the country, is the future of television.

Bored with hospital dramas, pet programmes and facile DIY shows? Then, hey, why not turn the tables and point a camera at yourself? "Never!" I hear you cry though this, according to commissioning editors and producers across the country, is the future of television.

It's no surprise to anyone that the docu-soap has spread like mildew across TV schedules and that Joe Public - or should we say Jeremy from Airport, Maureen from Driving School, Jane from The Cruise - has become an overnight celebrity.

More worrying is that a newer, more virulent strain of programme is on the loose, one that dresses itself up as a valuable discourse on the human condition. The Living Soap, a weekly exposé on student life, was the first though by no means the worst offender.

In 1993, the BBC agreed to pay the rent for six Manchester undergraduates in return for unlimited access to their most private moments. Now in their late twenties, the cast have since expressed regret for ever having taken part though that hasn't stopped them snapping up jobs in the media.

Then there is this year's Castaway. After a series of apparently rigorous trials, 36 people were dumped on the Outer Hebridean island of Taransay to live for a year. The intention, no doubt, was to select a pathologically ill-matched group who would provide the requisite amount of drama.

In fact, the cast of Castaway have turned out to be a bunch of pseudo-hippies who want to "find themselves"(the cash prize had nothing to do with it).

But perhaps the biggest hypocrisy of all was that the programme was billed as an unprecedented social experiment. In this auspicious year can a group of 21st century beings revert to the basics of human survival? With helicopters and a production crew standing by?

Drop them on a real deserted island and let them see what it's really like fending for themselves. They wouldn't be fussing and flailing over who should kill the livestock if they were on the brink of starvation.

The Secret Life Of The Family, aired last week, was a stunningly dull piece of television originally touted as a biological investigation. The Benthall family allowed cameras down their drains and up their nostrils, all for the sake of science.

This was accompanied by a fatuous commentary from a panel of "experts" who did little more than state the obvious. It hardly came as a surprise to discover that teenage boys begin to sweat under the armpits, or that little girls are prone to head lice.

It seems the world of celebrity isn't immune to "reality" TV either. Channel 4's Being Caprice, a series inspired by the film Being John Malkovich, saw model Caprice donning a concealed camera and giving us an insider's view of her bathroom, fridge and knicker drawer.

It is possible that she had laudable intentions and was trying to dispel the myth of the celebrity model. Either that or she needed the publicity.

The latest in prurient programming is the much-hyped Big Brother, a docu-soap-cum-interactive game show which sees 10 people sealed in a house for 64 days under the gaze of hidden cameras. TV and website viewers will vote each week to evict one of the cast until the final survivor emerges to take a cheque for £70,000.

"Never before have people consented to being filmed under such close scrutiny for so long," gushes the commissioning editor. Never before have people stood to win £70,000 to be filmed sitting on the toilet.

And is this really so revolutionary? Webcams have long been the preserve of frustrated housewives and closet exhibitionists for years. But Big Brother is being sold to us as a pioneering piece of television that has the capacity to shed fascinating new light on human behaviour. As in Castaway, interaction is the thing.

Mobile phones are banned, as are newspapers, watches and diaries. Salacious web-surfers have inundated the Big Brother site with questions including: are there any activities which won't be filmed, and will the contestants be filmed in the shower? Whatever the principled intentions of the series creators, you get the feeling the public aren't taking it in the same spirit. Gambling websites are taking bets on "incidents" such as who will land the first punch.

It's difficult to know whether to be relieved or horrified to discover that this so-called "reality TV" isn't just a British phenomenon. Big Brother is based on a successful Dutch programme that made cult heroes out of its contestants, not least because Bart the Beefcake and sexy Sabrina had it away in front of a million viewers. The US is currently gripped by Survivor, in which sixteen contestants are "marooned" on an island in the South China Sea.

If nothing else, these programmes are a master stroke in cost-cutting. In the old days, putting together a soap required a script, a set and a huge production team. Now all you need is gullible contestants, a camera and a pile of money. These programmes bear as much resemblance to real life as the average soap-opera melodrama.

They are elaborately-staged farces that insult the intelligence of the viewer. While those hapless stars of The Living Soap may have been seduced by little more than the BBC paying their rent, the protagonists of Big Brother are wiser to the fly-on-the-wall concept. If they know what's good for them they'll be shouting the house down and shagging like rabbits before the week is out.

Who is more culpable here? We, the viewers may marvel at the inane willingness of these people to relinquish their privacy for a fat cheque and a future in television, but, according to the television companies, we take delight in watching the day-to-day activities of "real" people.

If they are to be believed, we are a nation of compulsive curtain-twitchers. The viewing figures of Big Brother will soon tell us if this depressing thought is true.


'Big Brother' begins at 9pm on Tuesday on C4, followed by daily updates, Tuesday to Friday; the Channel Four website features 24-hour live footage