In person and print, in pub and at party, I have long been a champion of the reality television format. To those who looked down their noses at the genre, I argued that all life was here: Dickensian drama, Shakespearean tragedy, Loachian lows and Capra-esque highs – the best and worst that humankind has to offer. And how, I would conclude, could anyone not find something to inform, excite and inspire in that?
Lately, though, my relationship with the format has changed. There has been no scales-falling-from-the-eyes moment. Instead, there has been a slow chipping away: a small grit mark here, a minor crack there, before finally, last weekend, the windscreen shattered and I will now have to watch the shows I used to love and champion, if I watch them at all, with vision blurred.
The final straw? The public humiliation of Ceri Rees, a vulnerable contestant on The X Factor, who – if her friend and singing coach Amanda Roberts is to be believed – was encouraged by researchers to audition for the talent show for an astonishing fourth time. Roberts further claims that the tone-deaf, 54-year-old widow from Wales was coerced with free travel and accommodation.
It's a given that audiences are manipulated by reality television. It's accepted as part of the process and so, when a contestant who looks as if they should be selling The Big Issue ends up selling 10 million albums, we all share the warm glow that we have overcome our prejudices and can look beyond the narrow confines of teen pop.
The flip side is that we also seem to take a strange delight in watching the multi-untalented: those who believe they can sing and dance like a Gaga or a Michael Jackson only for the judges to thank them mock-kindly for coming in anyway.
Bless. Invite them back on for the "losers' parade" at the end of the show and all will be forgiven. And, anyway, there's a fine line between a DJ Talent and a Jedward. So we keep our collective consciences clear. Or we did, until Ceri Rees. But if the final straw came last weekend, the signs were there all along
When the Big Brother format arrived in Britain just over a decade ago, the contestants came from a variety of backgrounds but all were confident, moderately successful in fields from marketing to office management, and prepared for a concept that all considered to be an elongated "game show", rather than a fly-on-the-wall social study. The need for a pantomime villain started here and Nick Bateman duly obliged. Did we as viewers need to feel sorry for him? Hell, no. He cheated under the rules of the house, and even after he departed seemed to relish his new-found media role as Nasty Nick.
Windscreen intact, we moved on to Celebrity Big Brother, 2001. Cue Vanessa Feltz, a powerful, successful, talented woman who had recently lost her chat show and her husband. And if Feltz would soon "show signs of strain", did we feel a tinge of sympathy? Perhaps, but not to worry, Feltz would exit the house telling the show's host, Davina McCall, "You've probably seen how passionate the whole thing was, how emotional, but it's all for Comic Relief." Phew.
Fast forward to 2005: Big Brother, series six. Enter the 20-year-old Craig Coates or, as he would shortly become known, "the camp crimper from Cromer". Without wishing to go into unnecessary detail, Craig gets a crush on the eventual series winner, Anthony Hutton, and, on one horrible drunken night, follows him around like a puppy. Not sexually confident enough to come on to him and face rejection, the scene plays out as farce, with Anthony vomiting while Craig whispers sweet nothings ("I'll always look after you", etc) in his ear. It makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing but Craig will save face later in his exit interview. "I fancied Anthony at the beginning, I did, but as I got to know him I respected him as a person... I began to look at him as a member of my family." Dignity restored. Guilt assuaged.
And so we come to "the troubled Indian student" Sree Desari (Big Brother series 10, 2009), the point at which we were forced to accept that the reality of reality television can spill over into the reality of real life. Just hours after 25-year-old Dubliner Noirin Kelly (who will go on to "reveal all" for a variety of men's magazines) tells housemates, "He's like my shadow. I can't move without him being there," Sree will sidle up to her and say: "Your inner beauty is platinum and your laugh makes the sun shine. What I'm going to say, you keep it to yourself: I'm in love with you." A little over a month later, Sree will be watching the show he has left from his room at the University of Hertfordshire. He will watch Noirin kiss another housemate. He will slash his wrists and end up in hospital. And all the while, as Big Brother is unravelling, another reality TV show will grip the nation.
Britain's Got Talent has been running for two years when a "never been married, never been kissed" 47-year-old church volunteer called Susan Boyle takes the bus to Glasgow's Clyde Auditorium – a literal "journey" (as opposed to the metaphorical ones so beloved of these shows) that will change her life. Her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" gets an astonishing 500 million YouTube hits in one night, but the day after the show's final, Boyle checks herself into the Priory. "She is essentially fine," BGT judge Piers Morgan tells the press. "She hasn't been sleeping. She has gone from anonymity to being the most downloaded woman in history. Nobody has had to put up with the kind of attention Susan has."
It is easy to leave the Nasty Nicks and the Vigorous Vanessas to fend for themselves. When it comes to the Srees and the Susans our excuses run out. The people behind these programmes make much of the "ongoing support available to all participants" yada yada, but one suspects that no one really cares about these people once they have served their purpose as publicity-generating machines. And if the programme-makers can be cruel, then the public can be crueller. Witness Gillian McKeith who, the night after "passing out" in last year's I'm a Celebrity..., was forced by public vote to undergo another Bushtucker Trial until show bosses had to rule her out on "medical grounds". By that point, many people would, no doubt, happily have phoned in to watch McKeith executed at dawn, so the blame can not be placed entirely on the print media with pages to fill and the TV companies with ratings to chase.
Perhaps it is time to accept that if reality TV shows are going to continue dominating schedules around the world, the production companies owe participants a greater duty of care, a charter that the vulnerable will never be subjected to the sort of humiliation dished out to Ceri Rees on last weekend's X Factor.
It might have been funny if Rees were not clearly frail and even more clearly delusional. It would be funny if we still had a wider culture that encouraged public executions and Victorian freak shows. We don't, because society has changed and we have changed with it. The part of us that used to bay for blood is probably still there, but most of us have learnt to control and contain it, to put ourselves in the shoes of those less fortunate than ourselves.
Perhaps the part of the Rees episode that the programme-makers chose not to show is a sign that, like me, the British public has had enough of reality TV shows trying to pull us back to those brutal bad old days. For reports suggest that, after Rees's audition, the judge Gary Barlow joined her on stage and continued to belittle her. According to an audience member Ashlei Swain, "People were booing."
Perhaps they instinctively recognised that a multimillionaire musician mocking a weak and vulnerable woman is as unedifying a scene as it is possible to imagine. Perhaps they, too, have had their patience worn thin by a decade in which all our moral compasses have been pulled by the magnetic force of reality TV.
I like to think that the Rees episode will help us all to turn a corner. Reality television can still shine a light on the highs and lows of the entire human experience. It is an unstoppable force and, with more than 30 territories around the world hosting their own X Factor and more than 45 their own Big Brother, it looks increasingly as if it is here to stay. All the more reason, surely, that we should learn to use its power wisely.Reuse content