Is it time to take stock of that much-maligned genre that, bizarrely, gets to call itself reality TV? Journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale think so, and they have created a fascinating and somewhat gruesome guide to the canon. Their 10-episode BBC podcast, Unreal, takes in the past 20 years of reality television, from Big Brother and Pop Idol, through the Housewives of everywhere and the Kardashian machine, and culminating with the carnage of Love Island. They are shows that made stars of many cast members, millionaires of some hosts and producers, and voyeurs of us all.
Sykes and Kale are self-confessed reality TV devotees, so they come to the subject free of the scolding or snobbery that often dog it. But they are also counting the bodies as they dive into the cultural and ethical implications of what happens when you put real people under this kind of mass scrutiny. Lives were wrecked, even lost, in the wake of some of these shows, and Sykes and Kale interview former contestants, shameless producers, academics and diehard fans, asking about the responsibilities of those who profited, often wildly, from the willingness of ordinary people to step on to the small screen.
They take producers to task for failing to scaffold the participants after the camera lights turn off, for encouraging multiple surgeries and occasional fisticuffs to boost ratings, and for decisions not to interfere in situations that were dangerous, even life-threatening, for those involved.
While they confess to their own discomfort at bearing witness over the years, Sykes and Kale never fully examine the viewers’ complicity — that is, ours and also theirs — in the equation
Unreal is at once informative — did you know, for example, that there was a show called Who’s Your Daddy, where a contestant who had been adopted at birth was put into a room with 25 men and asked to pick out her real father? — and reflective in its efforts to grapple with the thorny issue of ethical responsibility.
Yet while they confess to their own discomfort at bearing witness over the years, Sykes and Kale never fully examine the viewers’ complicity — that is, ours and also theirs — in the equation.
Which brings us back to the tragedies: from Jade Goody through Miriam Rivera to the three people connected with Love Island who took their own lives, the casualties mount, and nobody is ready to accept blame.
Even those who decry such tawdry entertainment but tuned into Cilla Black’s Bind Date or continue to indulge in the Great British Bake Off aren’t off the hook. After all, are we even clear how to define reality TV or where it belongs? Somewhere between documentary and gameshow? And if the participants are informed and willing, who are we to say they are being exploited? Watching the Kardashians claw their way to the top of the celebrity pile, it is increasingly unclear who is exploiting whom.
Reality TV, as Unreal shows, has had a profound cultural and societal impact. It has, Sykes and Kale make clear, changed how we think about our bodies, about privacy, influence and narcissism. Then there’s the fact that you can draw a direct line between this oft-decried genre and a US presidency: some shows, turns out, we don’t get to switch off.