Sunday, May 12, 2013

Irritant TV

Judging by my Twitter stream while its on, and the conversations in the office the day afterwards, most people watching The Apprentice can't stand the wannabe apprentices. I heard the radio ads for the show and knew there was no chance in Hades of me wanting to spend any time at all in the company of those people.

So why do so many TV shows seem to be going out of their way to find the worst possible people to compete. (For my money, that's when Big Brother stopped being watchable; when instead of real people it turned into a 'find the freaks and stick them on TV' show.) We've got past the idea of telly as entertainment. The TV programmes that make the ratings seem to have embraced the idea of telly as an irritant.

I guess it's because it's hard to make TV that people love. You need skill and imagination and be willing to put in a lot of graft. It's a lot easier to find some obnoxious twazmuppets and stick them in front of a camera. People will still watch. You'll still get the ratings. You'll still have a hit. You just won't have to work so hard for it.

Why has there been such a groundshift in 'reality TV'?  I suppose 'Real' reality TV was too boring. Normal people are too nice - even the 'characters', whether its that bloke from Airport or a particular wheel-clamper, or whoever. Most of the first generation of reality TV stars were relatively grounded (no pun intended regarding Airport) and seemed to have some self-awareness. Get people with no self-awareness - now that's the difference!

In one way I can understand this thinking being quite important for the Apprentice. If they got together a group of genuine bright young things and gave them various business tasks that they accomplished in a cohesive and collaborative way, that would make fairly dull telly.

But where shows like Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore, and The Valleys, differ is that the people selected are pretty clueless about why they have been selected. They think it's because they're ace. Everyone watching knows it's because they are generally pretty awful specimens of humanity. Their chronic under-appreciation of how they are regarded isn't helped by the way the tabloids and 'celeb' mags play them up as if they are real celebrities who have actually achieved something. (Which leads to worrying copycat behaviour of young teenagers who think being on TV = successful.)

The Apprentice is a great example of using the human capacity for self-delusion regarding one's own skill levels to produce very successful irritant TV. People tune in every week because the battling apprentices are so odious and so full of themselves you want them to come a cropper. They are idiots and you want them to get their comeuppance.

The other reality car-crash trash TV plays on similar themes. We 'love' certain people, we 'hate' others. It's real-life drama and we all want our lives to be more dramatic. And, for many of us it's a chance to sneer at the underclass or the clueless snooty rich. We like to think we are better than those people on TV. That's not a particularly nice trait and I wonder if we would be better people if our personas were being skilfully crafted by anonymous people in the editing suite. (I know how you can make people say pretty much anything you want them to. You do not see the real people on reality shows.)

Irritant TV works because we are drawn to spectacle and we like to see nasty, vain people getting what they deserve. A sharp 'You're fired'. It's all about ratings and the TV companies don't care if people are tuning in because they love the show or because they hate it. And they know that we have reached such a point of dependency on television that we don't switch off even if we hate what we're watching. We just bitch about it on Twitter - which probably drives up the ratings even more.

If it's true that societies end up getting the culture they deserve, then truly we are doomed.

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