Don't criticise 'victimvision' - it's just ordinary people enjoying themselves

Addictive television
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The Independent Online
I HAVE a terrible confession to make. I like seeing "ordinary people" on television. I like to see them crying and brawling and boasting and generally carrying on. Does this mean I am an addict of the sordid "Victimvision" that is supposedly taking over our TV screens and which this week the Independent Television Commission has criticised. Or am I simply a cold-hearted voyeur, a tourist of other people's misery, hooked to the modern-day freak shows that flow into our living rooms?

Quite possibly. But I have been this way for a long time. Until recently I had to go to America to get my fix. Oprah, Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, Ricki Lake and of course wily old Jerry Springer have at times stopped me seeing much of the country I was actually in, so glued have I been to the TV set. Now, thankfully, I don't have to get on a plane to see this vision of America. It comes to me directly and indirectly through our pale imitations of the real thing: Vanessa, Kilroy and Esther.

Our versions ooze social, even educational, concern in order to promote a veneer of respectability. None the less the increase in this kind of output, particularly on ITV, is causing anxiety. Sarah Thorne , of the ITC is worried about confessional television: "Our concern relates as much to ensuring that vulnerable people are not exploited." Anthony Smith , a founder of Channel Four, commented about Oprah, "I've never been able to watch it without unease." Well, I've never been able to listen to Radio Four without unease, the relentless middle-browness of it all makes me want to join Class War. You see, I am very suspicious of anyone who wants to protect us from ourselves.

There may be those who do not want to see "ordinary people on TV talking about race, violence, betrayal, the paranormal and what the Daily Mail describes as "unusual lifestyles" but I do. Some of this is shocking, some of it is entertaining and very occasionally it is enlightening. Oprah Winfrey's tears for the abuse she suffered as a child made it a lot easier for a lot of less privileged, less famous women to talk about theirs. Yes, it's schmaltzy, American, over the top and embarrassing. Raw emotion is often not very tasteful. Shall we sweep under the carpet the fact that many ordinary lives are full of extraordinarily messy experiences?

Only yesterday I watched perfectly ordinary couples on Kilroy talking about male impotence. Every single man said he had thought he was the only guy in the world to suffer from this problem and had suffered in silence. A monstrously cheery women in a loud jacket demonstrated a huge pump which she gaily announced would produce "a lovely erection". Now you may not want this sort of thing at coffee time but surely you must accept that such issues are better out in the open. Silence is not golden , it is often sheer bloody hell. Was this exploitation or actually quite brave? Was it helpful or titillating ? Or perhaps all of these thing at once.

While newspapers are increasingly full of confessional journalism about columnists cats, cancers, divorces and diets, some of brilliant, much of it not worth the paper its printed on, the assumption is made that newspaper readers are discerning. TV audiences on the other hand are always snobbily discussed as if they were stupid. This Reithian , paternalistic idea still governs much debate about television. The fear that we have sunk to producing that which appeals to the lowest common denominator is a peculiar one when the lowest common denominator actually means common people.

Ordinary people it seems are acceptable when they are in their place: when they are characters such as Maureen in Driving School or have bit parts being shouted at in the new soapumentaries like Hotel. It is acceptable to film them "being themselves" even when every shot is edited and set up but it is not alright if they walk into a studio and confess to sleeping with their husband's sister, brother or dog. Even though they volunteer, they are being exploited and those who watch them are being cheapened .

The chattering classes, most of whom, would if they got the chance appear on Tasmanian TV at two in morning in order to discuss The Third Way become dreadfully worried that lesser mortals might make fools of themselves. Of course sometimes they do. Jerry Springer regularly features people who are clearly one guest short of a chat show (i.e. the "I cut of my penis off with garden shears" variety).

Even for the acutely insane the show must go on. However in my experience "ordinary people" enjoy appearing on television enormously even if they come across as mad, bad or sad. They video themselves with pride. Why? Because somehow appearing on TV feels more real to people than their real lives. Rightly or wrongly it is a vindication , a validation that they are somebody. As Michael Collins said "In the future everybody will be ordinary for fifteen minutes."

I have witnessed this. One man,who volunteered to have his chest waxed, and was kept waiting by a film crew for four hours and bled when the deed was finally done, told me it was one of the best days of his life. His face wasn't even filmed but he could point out his bleeding torso to his mates when it appeared on the box. Likewise I have seen wronged wives crying once and then crying again for re-take because the director has asked them nicely.

In a fragmented and secular society, the public confession with its promise of false intimacy has permeated every aspect of life. You may not have an extended family or even many friends but you can still see the dirt dished even by those who are so obviously vulnerable. The current concern about the reconstructed truth of documentaries and the acting up for the cameras by those who somehow do not know any better is a serious one. Yet it is clear that those who appear on TV often take the whole business far less seriously than those who express moral outrage at the exploitation of the lower classes. In America, particularly, the studio audiences feature those who otherwise have little media access. Feisty black women and white trash mutants are all part of this democratic genre.

If you think this amounts to a freak show and who ever watches it is merely indulging in their voyeuristic impulses, you should, I suggest, get out of the house more often. Perhaps it would be better if ordinary people were banned from our screens altogether and then we could convince ourselves that the world is really populated by articulate, rational, middle-class types who never feel the need to pour out their hearts. Yet this reconstruction of the truth is one that makes me feel far more uncomfortable than any amount of "sleaze TV".