Reality used to be a friend of mine

So, Autumn is upon us again, and with it, the glut of mass-market, cunningly edited ‘talent’ shows to fill the TV schedules, the front of every tabloid newspaper, and, every five minutes of each show’s duration, the status updates of what seems like half of Facebook.

For me, these ultra-staged ‘reality’ shows drive me up the wall. They all seem to blur into one hideous, homologised entity of tripe with a title like Strictly Dine On Ice with a Celebrity Apprentice Chef. And yet, as my boyfriend pointed out, I find myself talking about them even more than their fans. What can be the reason? My dislike of the format is probably an overreaction, and yet I can’t stay away from it. The most apt comparison would be to say that they’re like a scab I can’t stop picking.

The growth of ‘reality’ television (I use inverted commas because these shows are transparently the most faked slices of reality you’re ever likely to see) has been an insidious one over the last ten years or so, starting with Popstars and the original Big Brother. But there’s nothing new under the sun, and the irony is that most of the big shows are actually updates of ancient formats that at the time were considered massively uncool.

Strictly Come Dancing is nothing more or less than creaky old ballroom dance show Come Dancing, which the embarrassed BBC used to bury in the schedules at the dead of night while allowing an apparently tipsy Terry Wogan to gently mock the stiff contestants. What the new show does differently is bring a media-savvy propagandist’s method of presentation, all cleverly edited artificial tension and emotional manipulation. Oh, and pander to the increasingly daft cult of ‘celebrity’ by interspersing their actual dancers with the sort of Z-listers that would struggle to find a place in Heat magazine.

In taking these old formats, the shows have cross-pollinated with each other, learning from and adapting each other’s methods to try and retain the mental stranglehold on Britain’s otherwise mostly sane populace. Undoubted master of all the techniques from these last ten years of brainwashing is The X Factor, a so-called ‘talent’ show that is basically a version of the ancient Opportunity Knocks polished up by Josef Goebbels – here incarnated as the massively smug and punchable Simon Cowell.

Well might Cowell be smug though – he’s working one of the best con tricks since Barnum. He’s feeding the viewing masses rubbish, and not only are they begging him for more, they’re prepared to pay him for it. So he lines his pockets, allows his ‘discoveries’ a brief, Icarus-like shot at fame with the strategically placed Christmas release of a bland, anodyne single, then rubs his hands all the way to the bank while they shuffle off to a baffled obscurity.

“But, but,” say Cowell’s blinkered defenders, “The X Factor’s all about discovering new talent. Some of the contestants are really good musicians/have really good voices.” The tragedy is that some of them really do. But what Cowell’s trying to do is make the most money possible, and where music is concerned that means smoothing out any trace of individuality so that your product will appeal to the greatest number possible. The songs we end up with are so overproduced and bland that they serve as the musical equivalent of the Ford Mondeo.

And they can’t even be bothered to come up with original songs. The usual material available for cover is mass-produced pop that was trite enough to begin with – hardly an opportunity to display any talent the ‘star’ may have. Even when they use a song that does have some character of its won, they immediately use pitch-shifting, audio filtration, and a sub-Phil Spector production style to bludgeon it into mass-market conformity. Witness Alexandra Burke’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic ‘Hallelujah’. Burke genuinely does have a good voice, and the song’s an undoubted classic – albeit covered many, many times already. But her version ends up as the one that displays less genuine emotion than a sociopathic Vulcan. It may have been popular, but then so was ‘The Birdy Song’, and I’d like to think ‘Hallelujah’ has a bit more dignity than that. Elsewhere, Leona Lewis took Snow Patrol’s raw, fragile ‘Run’ and turned it into an overproduced dirge that presumably caused Gary Lightbody to take the money and run.

But The X Factor isn’t about music. It isn’t about talent. It’s about money. And the way to maximise the revenue is to shamelessly manipulate the show’s audience with the breathtaking propaganda skills of a latterday Leni Riefenstahl. Anyone who thinks success or progression within the show’s competition format has anything to do with actual talent is being startlingly naïve. The pre formulated drama of the show demands certain archetypes, and if you don’t fit into one of the pigeonholes then, talent or not, you’re out mush.

By now, many contestants seem to have learned to exploit the show’s need for caricatured archetypes. Hence the most successful at winning the audience’s sympathy, and those all-important £1 a minute phone votes, are the ones who have a dead, or dying dad/gran/dog etc. “If only he/she/it could have been here to see me,” they tearfully moan as the viewing public collectively goes “Aaah”, seemingly unaware that it’s just been had.

The X Factor though, like all these shows, is not reality. It’s actually drama that, because its characters are the unpaid members of the British public, is very cheap to produce – a godsend for an increasingly desperate and cash-starved ITV. And drama can’t function with just a hero, you need a villain too. Ever since Nick Bateman propelled himself, unwittingly or not, into this role in the original Big Brother, reality show producers have realised that they need a baddie. For every show, every year, someone is cleverly manipulated into being the one the viewers love to hate.

If the ‘villain’ is one of the contestants, the irony is that, while they won’t win, they’ll often end up better remembered – Bateman being an obvious example. But it’s more usually one of the judges, a lesson learned from Nigel Lythgoe’s unforgettably spiteful turn on Popstars and honed to sneering perfection by Cowell.

Elsewhere, we have The Apprentice – a concept that, as far as I know, isn’t derived from a creaky, ancient relic of an uncool show. But this too learns from the historical lessons of Big Brother, turning its everyday business drones into gladiatorial competitors hoping to score a ‘proper job’ as some kind of yuppie wanker. And Alan Sugar, originator of the crummy Amstrad brand, is hardly a substitute for megalomaniac tycoon Donald Trump – Sugar doesn’t have a giant skyscraper named after him that tourists come to gawp at. It’s all rather low-rent and British.

The rebirth of the humble cookery show as polished imbecile contest took place even earlier. Loyd Grossman’s 80s drivel Masterchef has been given the same slick polish as the other shows, but remains basically a way to turn food porn into cheap drama. And allows the viewing masses to bay for the blood of yet more Z list celebrities to boot. Along the way, Gordon Ramsay – who really should have been a football manager – has managed to become the food porn shows’ equivalent of Simon Cowell, though his ceaseless swearing at least makes him seem somewhat more human than Cowell’s withering, dead-eyed scorn.

Since the advent of Big Brother in 1999 and Popstars in 2001, the reality show has come to dominate British television while simultaneously reducing it to its cheapest, lowest common denominator. It’s Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame reduced to two seconds. It’s Christians fighting lions in the arena for a bloodthirsty public that distracts them from thinking about anything worthwhile. And more than anything, it’s dishonest. It’s not about ‘reality’. It’s not about ‘talent’. It’s a combination of money making exercise and latter day freak show. How many of the liberal viewers watching it ‘ironically’ would think it was acceptable if it was Siamese twins or bearded ladies put up on their screens to have fun poked at them?

From America, where the reality shows are becoming more insane and surreal by the day, I think the late Bill Hicks encapsulates the phenomenon and my feelings about it best:

“Go back to bed America, your government is in control. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up, go back to bed America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on the living in the land of freedom. Here you go America – you are free to do what well tell you!”

Rant over. For now…

9 thoughts on “Reality used to be a friend of mine”

  1. Gary Lightbody’s on record as saying he thought Leona Lewis’s version was phenomenal.
    In fact if anything, her original fragile version was more stripped back than Snow Patrol’s.


    1. I stand corrected John, I wasn’t aware of that. Though I think Gary and I will have to agree to differ on our opinions of this one. Interesting that that’s the only point in the piece you take issue with…


  2. The way Saturday night television is becoming dominated by tired old formats from the past id trylu shocking: take this “Dr Who” nonsense for example.
    I remember when it was on tv in the 1980’s; everyone said it was crap then and they had a point. The acting (especially from the lead) was terrible and the stories weren’t even original, often being based on other science fiction and horror films and tv shows. The BBC spend millions on it and yet it is only watched by about 7 million people! Disgraceful. The show has even began recucling its own plots, the reptile man one this year being a straight rip off of a Jon Pertwee episode from the 1970’s.
    It’s also clearly a marketing tool for a whole range of toys and tat, much of it produced by a dodgy foreign company called Character Options, who will produce loads of variations on the same character because they know that children will pester parents into buying the whole set! Just recently the show’s producers cynically (and rather cheaply, by the look of it) redesigned the set of Dr Who’s flying machine, “Tardis” , simply so that parents who had already forked out £40 for the previous version would now be pestered into spending the same on this rather unattractive replacement.
    What really annoys me though is the way that the comments others make about this show start filling up various websites I like to frequent on a regular basis. I know I could just not read them, but hey then I would be depriving myself of the vhance to feel superior to all the idiots who like Dr Who.

    And that would never do would it…….?


    1. Not a bad analogy Kim, but based on a flawed premise – the crass commerciality surrounding Doctor Who came second to the programme itself, and it could happily survive without it. For The X Factor, the commerciality is absolutely central. The show would not survive from one week to the next unless millions of idiots spent money phoning in to vote. Thus far, thankfully, Steven Moffat has resisted the tempatation to force viewers to vote on whether the Doctor would beat the Daleks before showing part two of the story.


  3. Ultimately though Simon, does it really matter? The pop stars of the past were often manufactured by some Svengali figure (The Jacksons are just one example) and pop music has always been about depriving people of their money first and creativity second. That’s the whole reason behind its existence.

    To go back to your point about the careers of said singers, not all of them have vanished back into obscurity, Leona Lewis being but one example. Her style is not to my taste either, but she is no worse than Whitney Huston, Beyonce or any other non talent show produced diva. You always have the choice not to buy the record!!!JLS , who came second, won a MOBO award last year; pretty credible stuff for a supposed reality show confection.

    I am also slightly suspicious of the Cowell bashing, mainly because it is too easy. Yes, he stacks the deals he offers stars so that he makes more money than they do, but can you name me a music business promoter who doesn’t do that? Yes most of the records he produces are over produced and bland, but some of them are actually classic pop tunes and in the end, as I said before, no one is actually forcing anyone to buy them. What happened last Christmas with Rage Against the Machine is an interesting example of a competing alternative marketing strategy. The official X factor single was not that good (though not as bad as some of the pap that litters the charts either!!) , but the campaign to have it stopped from reaching number 1 was a case of “Fuck Cowell do we what we tell you”, where thoudands of people demonstrated their individuality by obeying a facebook group telling them all to buy a different record. Ultimately most of these shows are harmless entertainment (there are exceptions I admit) and do offer a chance for people with, as you admit, talent to reach a wide audience. One of last year’s contestants was on a radio show last week, where the host said to him ” I feel a bit sorry for you, becuase you reached the semi final and then got kicked out”, to which said contestant said “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’m doing gigs every week now, making a tidy living at doing what I want to do and it’s all down to being on the X Factor”. Without the show, this man wouldn’t have had a chance frankly.

    There are, at the end of the day, worse things going on in this country, like the Tories destruction of our welfare state supported by a party I previously thought much better of , The Liberal Democrats (a branch of Conservative Future). If you want to vent some spleen, pick a more worthwhile target.


    1. All fair points Kim, to be honest I’m surprised I don’t have more of a sense of humour about the whole issue.
      But I am at least consistent – I’ve always hated the manufactured pop of which you speak, and this particular example gets my goat more because it dispenses with the need to even sell a record to make money.
      And I do appreciate that not all of the contestants vanish, though I’d still say it’s a 99% majority. Having said that, the example you give of someone who wouldn’t have had a chance without the show may not be the best one; I don’t know who you mean, but it’s entirely possible that in the interests of good music he shouldn’t have had the chance in the first place.
      It is easy to bash Cowell, it’s true, and there’s a reason for that. He exemplifies the sort of capitalist monomania I hoped had gone out of fashion in the 80s, and does it without an ounce of charm. I appreciate that slagging him off could be seen as jumping on a bandwagon, but the man really does provoke that kind of reaction in me.
      As to last year’s campaign to keep the X Factor single off number 1, I wholeheartedly approved of that – I think it was a genuine example of people who share my opinion of it to put up at least some sort of protest. In the face of such overwhelming odds against it, I think its success is a minor triumph of sorts. Though I do wish they had chosen something a little less adolescent in tone, as the choice of Rage Against the Machine merely provided ammunition for X Factor fans to dismiss the campaign as the product of sulky teenagers rather than a genuine protest against something that embodies the aspect of capitalism run rampant more than Stock, Aitken and Waterman ever dreamed of. And that’s why I do think this show is very worthy of venting my spleen about – it represents something abhorrent that’s been taken to heart by the vast majority of people.
      As to the Coalition, I am actually planning to do a piece about that in the near future – you almost read my mind, as I was thinking about it on the way home tonight. But it’s a piece I want to be rather more informed about the specifics of than I currently am, so a little research is in order, I think.
      In the mean time, it’s worth bearing in mind that while reality TV may appear trivial, to a lot of people – myself included – it represents the same unacceptable face of capitalism you rail against the Conservatives for. The tip of an iceberg perhaps, but certainly the most visible part.
      However, I acknowledge that my irritation with the subject has made me state my case somewhat ad nauseam now, so I don’t intend to post any more about it here or on Facebook – I’ll just suffer in silence:) I may decide to vent my spleen on other subjects instead; perhaps Premiership Football, or as Charlie Brooker once called it, “22 millionaires ruining a lawn”…


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