reality tv shows

Reality TV: Brave new world or the end of civilisation as we know it?

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According to Wiki, in Stephen King’s futuristic 1982 novel Running Man:

“The global economy has collapsed and American society has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The government pacifies the populace by broadcasting a number of game shows in which convicted criminals fight for their lives, including the gladiator-style The Running Man, hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian, where ‘runners’ attempt to evade ‘stalkers’ and near-certain death for a chance to be pardoned and set free.”

On the show contestants are routinely killed with extreme brutality to satisfy the public’s growing addiction to graphic violence. History has turned full circle. We’ve slipped back two millennia to the days of the Roman amphitheatre. In a world of cares and troubles and hum drum 9-5 jobs, we demand our human sacrifice. Reality TV delivers.

I have a bone to pick with reality TV. Is it just me, or does anyone else think we’re heading for hell in a handcart of the kind imagined in Stephen King’s dystopian vision? Sky was the Trojan horse, of course, the Greek bearing gifts, not least in its promise of a thousand channels offering ever greater choice with game-changing content. Well, we certainly got the choice. Yet many would argue that 24/7 wall-to-wall telly has led to a noticeable dumbing down of content.

It became a live issue for me the other night when England were stuffed by Uruguay in the World Cup, thanks to the Mad dog of Montevideo, ‘three bites and you’re out’ Luis Suarez. Like a lot of guys, there’s always a period of introspection after your team loses. You just want to be left alone with your thoughts. To grieve, as it were. After the game I was searching for a non-news or sports related channel where I could bury my sorrows without having the national catastrophe replayed to me in slow motion, over and over. For ten minutes I scrolled up and down Sky’s one thousand two hundred and fourteen channels. I couldn’t find a damn thing. Not a single sausage I wanted to watch. The documentary channels which can normally be relied upon in an emergency, were mostly showing repeats of series I’d seen a dozen times. This was something that had never happened to me in the old days of four-channel terrestrial TV. Yet in the age of round the clock telly, even those bastions of reliability the BBC and Channel 4 had been sucked into a spiral of ever dumbed-down eye candy in their desperation to protect their market share from the gaudy neighbours at Sky. I can’t tell you how depressing I found this. To have a thousand channels and not find a single thing worth watching, felt like a black day for British telly. It occurred to me that this was the belated cost we were paying for inviting the Trojan horse of Sky into our homes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. Life without wall-to-wall Premier League and NFL Sundays would be unthinkable for me and millions of other sports fans. And a world without Friends, Sopranos and Breaking Bad could hardly be described as a return to some golden age. But here’s the rub. For every Game of Thrones and Mad Men there now exist a thousand pile-em-high and sell-em-cheap programmes which are cluttering up the airwaves with homogenized garbage. I’m mostly talking about the genre that has come to dominate twenty-first century television as we know it. Reality TV. It’s cheap, quick, and unhealthily addictive – fast-food for the lobotomized masses. Shows like Big Brother, X Factor, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Biggest Loser, Dog The Bounty Hunter, The Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Highway Thru Hell, Swamp People, Swamp Loggers, Hoarding: Buried Alive, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Traffic Cops, Motorway Cops, Night Cops, Cops With Cameras, Street Wars, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Extreme Makeover, Britain’s Got Even More Talent Than Ever Before, America’s Next Top Clothes Horse, Raising Sextuplets, Hotter Than My Daughter, Touch the Truck, My 600 Pound Life, Obese: A Year To Save My Life, Extreme Celebrity Detox, The Only Way Is Essex, Storage Wars, Shipping Wars, Pawn Stars, Meet the Sloths, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, The Real Housewives of D.C., The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Real Housewives of Miami… I mean, WTF? Does anyone REALLY give a flying one about all these fake ‘real’ housewives? Who is watching this garbage? Who is asking for it? Why is it on my TV? Then there’s The Apprentice, Young Apprentice, Six-Week Old Baby Apprentice, Foetus Apprentice (you see where I’m going here?) Once a formula is proven to sell, it is cloned mercilessly. Ad nauseam.

The phenomenon of reality TV may not be the end of civilization as we know it, but the dubious moral precepts it now streams into our homes around the clock should give serious cause for concern. We were all shaped by the telly we grew up watching as kids, and like it or not the moral compass of today’s generation of children is going to be largely set by the amount of junk we feed them. Do we really want our child’s goal in life to be an appearance on Big Brother, or Toddlers and Tiaras? Do we want their ideas of right and wrong based on the Jeremy Kyle Show? Their notions of normality shaped by The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills or 16 and Pregnant? Many of these so-called ‘reality’ shows routinely glamorise greed, vulgarity and materialism of the worst kind. Most worryingly of all are the ones which seek out the weirdest, trashiest people they can find to base a series around, turning bigots, racists and chauvinists into media celebrities.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is about a ratings war. It’s all about the money. Keeping bums on seats. Programmes about Kierkegaard’s influence on the existential philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre are a tough sell. We’re in the middle of a dog-fight for viewers that has led to ever more controversial, provocative content that appeals to the lowest common denominator, to our basest appetites. The Holy Grail for TV producers is to be not just the show everyone’s watching, but the show everyone’s talking about. For that you need some blood on the floor. On franchises like The Apprentice and X Factor where participants are routinely reduced to tears by the savage maulings of judges, humiliation is the name of the game. You end up, of course, with televised wife swaps and celebrities swallowing live cockroaches. You end up with post-modern ironies like Reality Ex-Wives, a reality TV show which profiles women whose marriages have fallen apart after appearing on reality TV shows. And if you’re not careful, you end up with bodies. On sidewalks, in ambulances, in police cells and morgues. In the States, where they’re always a few years ahead of the game, the rising number of suicides among eliminated contestants from reality TV shows is a worrying trend.

If it’s so bad for us, why is it then that we’re so hooked on reality TV? One reason could be the illusion of ‘community’ it conveys. That thing that no longer exists in our modern metropolitan lifestyles, where big city dwellers are as likely to talk to their dogs as the neighbours. Instead we now hang out in cyber-space, where we discuss the latest episodes of our favourite shows. It seems we’ve become a nation more able to relate to people on a screen than in real life. Another reason could be the illusion of power reality TV sometimes gives us, by allowing us to participate in the format. Beset as we are on all sides by recessions, job losses, corrupt politicians, calamitous world events and a whole heap of other forces beyond our control, these shows where the nation decides the fate of participants can provide a sense of purpose in an otherwise disenfranchised and nihilistic daily existence. This is a new kind of democracy, where people vote with their remotes rather than the ballot box, about the things that are important to them now. Like who should stay in the Big Brother house, and who should go. Such shows also hold out the hope that however obscure and humble our origins, however meagre our talents, however little work we put in, we can all be famous one day. One recent survey showed that around half of all teenagers in the UK now hope to gain fame by appearing on reality TV, rather than doing something meaningful with their lives. As Martin Amis presciently pointed out back in 2001, in The War Against Cliché, these days:

“You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.”

When you take away the talent, all that’s left is what’s on the surface. Perhaps that’s why the cast of many a contemporary ‘talent’ show wouldn’t look out of place on a low-budget porn movie, or in a zoo. Mostly they seem to involve clones of empty-headed bimbos flaunting boob jobs the size of footballs in ever more revealing, clingier outfits. Cameras zoom in salaciously on cleavages. Waxed legs grow longer and tanner by the series, skirts shorter and tighter. Chic ankle tattoos are de rigueur. Botoxed lips shimmer with glossy kissability. As for the dudes, those gladiators of hubris who cram their gym-pumped, ripped torsos into crisply-tailored suits or pre-ripped jeans and tees, this new breed of hombres pluck their eye-brows and fuss over strands of immaculately-gelled hair. Popular styles include the Dragged Through a Hedge look, the Wind Tunnel, the Baby Bobby Charlton and the Loo Brush. To borrow a phrase from Radio 4’s John Humphrys, reality TV has provided us with a freak show to gawp at.

I often find it ironic that the genre goes under the label ‘reality’, when it produces some of the most formulaic, stage-managed melodrama on TV. Perhaps the reality lies in the mirror these awful programmes hold up to our increasingly celebrity-obsessed, intellectually-impoverished times. Life for most of us has become a milk-shake of simulated reality sucked through the straw of digital media. Junk food for the brain. The TV equivalent of a Big Mac. It’s the soma drug predicted by Aldous Huxley in his equally prescient 1931 novel, Brave New World. Christ, how that’s come true. The sad thing is we appear to be more addicted to it than ever. We’ve voted with our remotes and got the reality we deserve.

To quote from another Martin Amis book, in his 1985 Moronic Inferno he wondered if one day the book’s title might be more prophetic than he imagined:

“It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality.”

Was Amis ahead of his time? Have we already got there? I’ll leave you to decide.

This is the backdrop against which I’ve set my latest novella, Reality TV, now out on Amazon. It’s a darkly humorous dystopian tale. The story opens with strange goings on in the household of a family of telly addicts in London as they settle down to watch their favourite reality TV show. As the evening goes on and the show unfolds, events get more and more disturbing. I’ve used magic realism to give the tale a surreal twist. Without giving away too much, you’ll find the blurb at the end of this post.

I feel a little guilty about abandoning Smashwords for the launch of this book. I’m a big fan. In my opinion they do a lot more to nurture writers than Amazon. And they actually answer your emails. Whereas Amazon, especially its e-publishing arm Kindle, largely leave you to your own devices (like those other faceless giants Google and Microsoft). They not only don’t answer your emails, they don’t have an email address where you can reach them in the first place. Too big, powerful and greedy to be bothered with mere individuals, they hide behind the internet, and leave their users to stumble around in the dark trying to find solutions in online forums. However, Amazon also dominate the e-book market, so no author can afford to ignore them.

So far I’ve e-pubbed all my previous three titles – Sex on the Brain, Sticky Pages, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII – on both Amazon AND Smashwords. Smashwords kindly distribute to partners like Apple, Barnes & Noble and Sony, which has meant that up to now readers have been able to pick up my titles on ipads, iphones and Nooks. Sales haven’t been huge, to be honest, but every time someone buys one of my books it feels like a miracle to me. I’m so proud and grateful, and just keep my fingers crossed they enjoy it.

Then a couple of years ago Amazon launched KDP Select, an e-publishing platform that allowed authors to leverage, among other benefits, free or discounted promotional days intended to increase book sales. The downside was, KDP Select insisted on exclusivity. You couldn’t join the party if your books were also on sale elsewhere. For that reason I resisted the temptation to join at the time. I have a fairly low opinion of bullies, as anyone who reads this blog will know.

So far, I’ve mostly been watching from the sidelines while the KDP Select debate has played out among e-book authors. While some have enjoyed huge success, claiming to have grown their fan-base and sales significantly, others have said the promotional days just encouraged thousands of people to download their books for free (most of whom would probably never read them) and they never really saw much upturn in paid-for sales when the free giveaways came to an end. Lately, authors seem to agree that Select was more effective in its early days, but the numbers signing up have diluted its effect, which has tailed off some.

I’ve decided the only way I’m going to find out if KDP Select can help me reach a bigger readership, and ultimately sell enough books to make a living, is to try it for myself. So that’s the reason, and the only reason, why I’ve decided to launch the book solely on Amazon at this time. The lock-in period is 3 months at Select. After that, I can opt back out and make it available to more readers on Smashwords and other platforms, tablets and devices if I choose. Ninety days isn’t so long, I figure. (For more info on the KDP Select in/out debate, see this great post by Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, on the dilemma authors face and why on balance it’s probably best to steer clear of KDP Select.)

Here’s the blurb to Reality TV. If it sounds like your cup of tea, you know the drill.

“Meet England footballer and walking brand David Crimp. Adore his vacuous bimbo of a WAG Lara. Across the table in The Murderers restaurant sit monocled conceptual artist Damon Twain and his young Chinese bride Chu-Chu, the ravishingly beautiful chart-topping classical violinist. Who will win the big eat off on tonight’s show? Which unlucky contestant will get the mystery food-poisoning dish?

The fare is served up by host Soup Dogg, the black rapper and media darling with enough Michelin stars to fill a page of Amazon book reviews, fruitier language than a compote with Tourette’s, and more moves than a break dancer on fast-forward. He’s sick, he’s slick, and he’s down with the kids.

When these A-listers go head to head on Sty Transatlantic’s flagship Sunday night programme Humili-ATE (think Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares v Weakest Link) it’s about to turn into the reality TV show from hell. Throw in a dash of controversy to boost the ratings – tonight’s guest kitchen crew of category A prisoners from Glasgow’s High Security Prison, HM Barlinnie – and you pretty much have all the ingredients for a recipe for disaster.

Meanwhile surreal things are happening down in West Ham, where avid Humili-ATE fans Gazza and Tanya Mason find their telly taking on a strange reality all of its own.

The steaks are high, the curry’s a dog, and there’s something dodgy going down in the restaurant toilets.”

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