Go and Get Real


Over the course of 2004 and 2005 I had the great pleasure of being the sole television commentator on ABC Radio National. The obligation to come up with a new angle every fortnight eventually wore me down. Television producers and programmers don’t come up with fresh, exciting new genres quite that often. There’s only so much one can say about the latest hospital drama, forensic crime show or supernatural thriller in a field that may offer up to five variations on every theme.

I enjoyed reviewing immensely, however, and what I loved best about the job was sharing my obsession for ‘reality TV’ with an audience that was not exactly the genre’s target demographic.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

At the end of my tenure, I was asked to predict the next big trend in television. Without hesitation, I predicted that the ‘shame/reality’ genre would continue its ascendency.

The term is my own invention, but the genre is probably recognisable to most. The defining features of shame/reality programs are: the willingness of participants to display their dirty laundry in public; and the relish with which the program’s ‘experts’ take them in hand.

Obvious candidates include programs like Super Nanny, What Not To Wear, You Are What You Eat, How Clean is Your House? and The Biggest Loser. With the exception of the Biggest Loser, none of these programs follow a game show or competition model. All have their own unique qualities, but what links these programs is their ingenious teaming of reality TV set-pieces with a kind a therapeutic imperative.

The programs I call ‘shame/reality’ run according to a fabulous formula. Like my favourite reality show ever, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, they explore the ways we express our ‘selves’ through the ways we live our everyday lives. More than one sociologist has observed that, in what has been termed ‘the age of uncertainty,’ an individual’s lifestyle choices have become one of the primary ways that they express themselves as rational subjects, or citizens.

Some commentators, on both the Left and Right, are not entirely happy with the directions in which these rational subjects are heading. While the concepts of democracy, free markets and participatory citizenship are all very well in principle, both political leaders and cultural commentators increasingly express dismay at the choices that are being made.

The citizens, it seems, have very poor judgement. They’ve been suckered by advertising and too much consumer credit. They eat the wrong food, in the wrong restaurants. They buy their kids the wrong toys. They watch the wrong television programs. They even watch the wrong televisions, according to critics for whom the purchase of a plasma screen is surely a sign of chronic, degenerative ‘affluenza.’ Even worse, they choose pleasurable leisure in the present over the worthy (if dull) promise of security in the future.

The shame/reality genre is the perfect response to these criticisms. Programs like Super Nanny and The Biggest Loser offer the best of reality to all viewers. Reality fans like me still get satisfaction from emotional interaction with the ‘made-over’ participants. I can cry in identification with frustrated parents, and shy girls knocked back by a boyfriend who thought they were too fat. I get more surprises and dramatic twists from these shows than I could ever get from the average soapie. And I can enjoy the schaudenfreude that comes from watching other people get a lecture about their ghastly wardrobe choices.

Those who see reality programming as a symptom (if not a primary cause) of the decay of the social fabric should also find much to love in shame/reality. After all, these makeover shows all feature hapless individuals who freely admit they’ve made the wrong choices. What’s more, they’ve invited well-meaning but bossy experts who know what’s best to make an example of them.

They also open up all kinds of possibilities for future interventions in other media. Already, a nutritionist has condemned The Biggest Loser, not for encouraging fat people to feel ashamed of themselves, but for failing to shame enough of the population. This commentator was concerned that the majority of the contestants were in the ‘very obese’ category, and that ordinary chunky folk would see the program as confirmation that it was actually okay to walk around with love handles, muffin tops, and thunder-thighs. Perish the thought.

Then there are those viewers who may be no more likely to exercise regularly, dress appropriately at all times, or parent their children with wisdom and consistency than the contestants on reality programming. However, they know that if they are loudly and frequently disgusted and/or incensed by the rubbish on commercial TV, then they are doing their bit to maintain social standards. For these armchair opponents of the dreaded disease of ‘consumerism’, ‘shame/reality’ offers a terrific opportunity for combining righteous indignation with the guilty pleasure of vegging in front of the telly like everybody else.

Despite the current mass appeal of the shame/reality genre, I suspect its bubble will burst is due to burst. At the end of the 2005 season, the Ten Network announced its new series Honey, We’re Killing The Kids, and attempted to recruit families to participate in the program with ads that featured the flashing catch phrase ‘Bad Parent Alert.’

By the end of January, the same recruitment ads were still running, but now they politely sought participants for a ‘new family health show.’ It seems the parents of Australia are refusing to be shamed.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.