Australian resident James Barrington takes up cudgels against the lowering of television entertainment standards as a result of so-called Reality Television.
30 years ago, if you were talking in class at school, you could be caned; to be gay was a closely guarded secret and the only novelty gay on TV was Larry Grayson, bellied into variety TV; Unions could allegedly destroy governments; television was designed for the masses; and each individual ITV station had a head of minority programmes, head of documentaries, head of school programmes - all part of their remit to stay on air - along with heads of music and so on. But the majority of well-known heads of departments were for the programmes that had wide appeal: at Thames, Verity Lambert was known as Head of Drama (not soaps god forbid); Sue Turner was Head of Children's Programming; and Philip Jones was the most respected Head of Light Entertainment at both Thames and ITV, if not the country at large. Jack Parnell was the Head of Music at ATV, with some meaning for the creativity they helped develop, and the list of television moguls was also plentiful.
In the early 70's, TV critic for the Daily Mail Clifford Davies described the difference between British TV and American TV. He described a TV drama made in the US based on firemen as absurd, and said the best British TV would make would be a documentary, probably made by Yorkshire TV, or another minority ITV station. 15 years later and low on ideas, LWT made the acclaimed drama London's Burning, a complete about-face to Mr Davies' comments. Television was looking for fresh new ideas - and running out of them too.
But today, it seems, virtually all those heads have rolled. Today, ITV plc seems to have no comedy shows; little variety and no light entertainment; no drama; just mere soaps, minority programmes designed today for the majority, and there is that phrase in television that has exploded into a global phenomenon, so-called "Reality Television" - that same Reality Television that Pope John Paul II railed against as "incompatible with human dignity". But it's the same Reality TV that has such mass appeal,a chance of 15 minutes of fame, and a change in television entertainment attitudes of global proportions not seen since the Moon landing.
Reality TV has become the new light entertainment of television, and has replaced other respected minority television shows too. Cheaper to make and requiring no actors, agents, or residual fees for repeats, each show is a one-off, one hit wonder. But some of this reality entertainment has hit rock bottom. Big Brother is a case in point: cameras watch and look out for housemates with high levels of testosterone and hope for the best - or the worst. But it's shows like this that have defied the former Pontiff to become a lucrative business.
Since airing in the Netherlands in 1999, Big Brother creator and media tycoon John de Mol has seen his show air around the world in 70 countries, even making inroads into Africa and the Middle East, and he is now ranked by Forbes magazine as the 350th Richest Man on the planet, with a net worth of $US 2.2 Billion dollars.
And if Big Brother is entertainment the masses want, then it has reached the lowest common denominator. Last year in the Australian Big Brother, two men were expelled from the house, one for holding down a female housemate while the other gave her what is commonly known as a 'turkey slap' - to be more explicit, pulling out his genitals and slapping her face with his penis.
The incident caused outrage in the federal parliament, Prime Minister John Howard calling for the show to be removed; however ratings, perhaps predictably, skyrocketed and although the incident was never broadcast live on TV, it was to be seen on the internet. The changing face of television entertainment thus reached new lows that the masses were captivated by. Channel 10 in Australia refused to cancel the show, profits were so large. The four principal sponsors paid millions to have there names associated with a show that bridges the generation gap; the show generated millions of dollars in phone call voting, web casts, internet and normal TV advertising.
The show cost $AUS 20million in rights which Channel Ten gladly pays to Southern Star Endemol, the owner, ironically, of Southern TV's back catalogue of UK shows once classed as entertainment. Come back Country Boy and Fred Dineage in How: all is forgiven.
Reality TV has taken on many forms, absurdly broad in terms of what one might think the term means. Granada Australia has produced a "reality" show, Australian Princess, in which common Aussie girls fly to the UK to learn decorum and to mix and mingle with the aristocracy - riveting stuff. And the list of reality shows keeps getting longer and longer. Pop Idol, American Idol, X Factor, Survivor, Airline,Changing Rooms, Cops, The Biggest Loser and on it goes.Now Jamie Oliver has a "reality" cooking show in Australia, taking 15 street kids from the ghetto and turning them into chefs in an exclusive Melbourne restaurant: yet another chance of 15 minutes of fame, but all prime time, classed as entertainment that once, would be seen on BBC2 after hours or on a time slot few, if any, would watch or even care about. Ready Steady Cook forms another example of the common man on prime time TV.
It seems that whilst there is nothing new in television any more - and even "reality tv" was prpesaged decades ago by Nigel Kneale - when an idea comes along it can explode into a global eruption of cataclysmic proportions. The BBC once had a late night show on BBC2 called Come Dancing; it's now turned into a reality primetime Saturday evening show, heaven forbid, called Strictly Come Dancing, with an eight million viewer rating, in a time slot that could, in the pre-digital woorld, have comfortably doubled that figure with a show like The Generation Game. It was copied in America and now appears as Dancing With the Stars on Channel Seven in Australia.
Another example of stupidity, a poor version of Opportunity Knocks came on the scene as America's Got Talent, Britain's Got Talent, and, heaven forfend, you guessed it (yawn) Australia's Got Talent. How many quick change artists or jugglers can Simon Cowell find for each country? Even the once-dignified Thames TV
made its first bid for the Channel Five licence based on Canada's CITY TV, reality on the streets and on location, with very little studio footage, instead all looking live, all the time, as if it was ENG.
Coronation Street is another case in point, using live locations, live homes mixed with studio video tape, losing suspension of disbelief in the switch from studio to live shots, the sense of drama dissipated not just by the poor quality scripts and acting, but by the new technology too: goodbye film.
One might have hoped that "Reality TV", in the beginning, might have been just a phase at the turn of the century, but now, it seems, it's here to stay. And whilst TV execs hate the name "Reality", it appears so pervasive that it is replacing the majority of dramas and variety that television was once especially known for - otherwise known as Quality Television.