Tuesday, 23 January 2007

British reality TV

It’s strange, who would have guessed that Celebrity Big Brother, which I became so curious about when I first arrived here, would spark a major international incident! The proportions of this have really gotten huge. Could the end result of all this be, finally, the death of trashy reality TV? I do so want to believe that, but my natural skepticism doubts it.

I’m not sure how much play this is getting in the states, so I’ll briefly recap for you. Big Brother is a huge phenomenon here, with a live TV feed and the inane details of the show plastered across the front pages of the tabloids every morning. This seasons Celebrity Big Brother invited on Jade Goody, a woman who became a “celebrity” (the term is used loosely here) through her appearance on a previous Big Brother. Basically, she became well-known for her outrageous stupidity.

Controversy erupted when Jade and two other contestants started picking on Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood star from India. They said some things that were vaguely racist, such as saying Shilpa should “fuck off home” and saying Shilpa “wants to be white” because she bleaches her upper lip hair. Basically the things that were said were more stupid and ignorant than overtly racist. Well she did call Shilpa “Poppadom,” but I have no idea what that means.

But when a record number of viewers started calling in to complain, the media took hold and ran with it. It soon became a major international incident, with protests across India (they were even burning effigies of the show’s producers and the contestants). Incoming prime minister Gordon Brown, who happened to be in India this week anyway, spent the whole trip trying to smooth over the furor. Tony Blair had to make a statement on it in the House of Commons. It was everywhere. This Friday it came down to a vote for who to kick off: Shilpa or Jade. The newspapers all called on the British people to vote to evict Jade to reject her evil racist ways. "Evict the Face of Hate!" demanded The Sun, owned by your favorite media baron and mine Rupert Murdoch (himself a model of enlightenment). In the end she was evicted, by an 80% vote. Channel 4, which runs the show, had to spirit her into hiding and give her 24-hour police protection, because there were so many threats against her life. There have even been bomb threats called in the house.

Jade ostensibly learned of what had been going on in the outside world when she left the house and was told, in a live interview, that she was now the most hated woman on the globe. She cried and apologised and bemoaned the fact that her two children would now be targets as well. She probably has more security on her than Tony Blair right now.

Channel 4 execs at first tried to pass the incident off as a good thing, saying it was provoking public debate about a serious issue. This is perhaps true, but an investigation is now being launched into whether Channel 4 intentionally provoked the racism row in order to boost ratings.

It is undeniable that the controversy did indeed have this effect. Before this erupted the show was facing record low ratings, with viewers tuning out by the thousands. The controversy immediately drew Britons to their TV sets, eager to see what was going to happen next. And I admit, if I had a TV set, I probably would have been watching too. Because at this point, it becomes news, and I want to see what happens.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a stretch to think the show’s producers intentionally provoked and fed the controversy, but eventually it got out of control and they were unable to contain the monster they had created. Reality TV shows of this nature depend on controversy for viewers. When the ratings were slumping, perhaps the shows producer decided to instigate racial tension in the house, and then alert the media to it, to generate headlines. Because many of the conflicts were about things provided to the house by the producers, such as stock cubes for producers, it’s easy to see how they could have done it. Reality shows are also notorious for provoking conflict among contestants by asking them leading questions.

The fact that Jade certainly seemed coached during her exit interview suggests that she was also given a heads up as to what was going on by the show's producers, reflecting the extent to which they were probably manipulating the whole situation (or, more likely at that point, desperately trying to control it).

Of course I have no way of knowing what actually happened, but if the investigation reveals that this was indeed the case, people need to be held accountable. This is exactly what I was talking about in my previous entry, how these shows cynically exploit the worst in human nature. This is what I meant when I told Aaron that watching these shows makes me feel sad and ashamed. It’s a crass, exploitative, disgusting form of entertainment. And it’s not “just a TV show.” These are people’s actual lives they’re messing with.

Think about all the pain and suffering the shows producers have caused with this attempt to exploit human flaws for their own profit (assuming they did indeed intentionally provoke or exploit the conflict). Although she is a highly unsympathetic character, Jade has, I believe, been unfairly maligned in all this, and her actions blown completely out of proportion. It is no exaggeration to say it isn’t just her “career” that has been ruined, but her life. How much longer can channel 4 provide her with bodyguards? This woman, along with her accomplices Danielle and Jo, will be vilified for life. (Incidentally, it was former Miss Britain Danielle who said the worst comments in all of this).

I would hope that this whole debacle will make people wake up to the true nature of these shows, but unfortunately I think the lesson will go unheeded. Still, one can dream, right?

No comments: