2013 and Blocks are sky high, celebrities splash, bake offs are great, Masterchefs are professionals, moles are traiters and Big Brother twists. Welcome to the post-boom reality show Age. Long after we were told many times that the reality show format was a fad and would die out we are still living in a world of ‘event television’.
Ubiquitous coverage and live specials push reality shows to the top of the ratings every week. Many write off reality shows for being too homogenous. It’s easy to see shows that have been brought in from other countries as not truly meeting the needs of an Australian audience.
I propose that reality show formats allow for an idiosyncratic perspective into our national identity, and that formatting licences of shows like Big Brother allow us to clearly outline what Australia can uniquely bring to it. The fractured nature of TV now makes dominant values in our texts harder to come by. But it is reality tv that is aiming to speak to a national audience, not a specific one. Reality formats don’t mark the end of local tv, but is proof of the endurance of it.
TV formats are not a new idea. Adapting ideas for a unique national viewpoint is as old as the bible itself. Some TV show formats are more closed and tightly controlled than others. Early reality show formats such as ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ and ‘The Weakest Link’ were very specific with how their shows run.
Currently ‘The Voice’ is an example where the format of the show is very similar in all markets. All shows have almost identical sets, a focus on celebrity judges, and the very American values of rebirth and reinvention. The biggest difference to be found between the American Version and the Australian Version is that, just like our flushing toilets, our chairs spin around the opposite way.
This type of format is now rare, as a more open view to the adaptation of the local version of reality shows is more prevalent.
The open formatting more reflects the reality of making the shows in different countries. Through the linguistic, intertextual and cultural codes embedded within the text we see the values of the producers who created it and the audience of who it is for.
The easiest way to see the current values within an Australian reality show is to compare how the show is constructed compared to the same format in other countries.
Take the show Big Brother for example. Originally from Denmark in 1999, the premise of the show is simple: A group of strangers live in a house that is closed off from the outside world are constantly monitored by television cameras. Contestants are regularly voted off until there is 1 winner. The format of the show remains open to the over 40 countries that have run their own version, sometimes creating very different shows.
To look at these different ways of creating the same show for different audiences, it’s useful to look at it through a three part analysis that has been used in the past to analyse how a newspaper may change it’s formatting for another culture.
The three parts are made up of Style and Form analysis, where we look at how the text is constructed from the staging and shooting to the organisation and storytelling inherent in the text.
Intertextual analysis has us look at the text within the broader television industry and established genres within them
and analysing the cultural codes sees how the social values of the time and place of production has an effect on the local text.
It’s hard to study any of these in complete isolation from each other, all three are closely connected.
Now in it’s 15th season, the American version of Big Brother started off in 2000 and it’s the text that has most deviated away from the original formatting. With it’s home on commercial network CBS, Season one stayed close to international tropes of the show where housemates are voted off one by one by the viewers. This backfired when viewers voted off any remotely interesting characters. Whether CBS was being overly cautious or accurately reflected how the audience would react to anything controversial, it demonstrated that a reality show needs to be mindful of what viewers in different countries want, but also keeping the factors that make the show work in the first place.
Following a negative critical and commercial reaction against the show, season two drastically changed the show structure, where a group of contestants, now called ‘houseguests’, compete by voting each other off and being the last houseguest remaining.
If this format sounds familiar, it’s because it is basically ‘survivor in a house’. Born from a history of quiz shows and Jerry Springer, this format is what we see in the US and the Canadian versions of the show now, and reflects an important social value of America that has been prevalent since The Great Gatsby and before – the chance of rebirth, that anybody can reinvent themselves if they just work hard enough. This idea of individual entrepreneurialism and the possibilities of self-transformation pervade much of American media texts, including their reality shows. Makeover shows such as The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover give the chance of individual perfectibility, the idea that it’s acceptable for Gordon Ramsey to yell at you to break you down, as it means you are able to build yourself back up again.
This social value is deeply embedded into the American Big Brother format. The show screens at primetime three times a week, each show having a major piece of the competition in it, the weekly eviction, the Head of House competition and the Power of Veto competition. Although the competitions played are usually silly, they are taken by the show as completely serious. In fact, much of the syntax used by the contestants of the show surrounds the competition aspect of it. As with Survivor, the idea of alliances is a major part of the vocabulary of the text and much of the conversations and to-camera interviews seen has to do with gameplay elements.
Most of the documentary devices are completely stripped out as all segments are about power plays, alliances and show-mances. Events are not explained through a third person voiceover but by the game players in to-camera post game analysis over dramatic music, although I’m not sure why they need to yell.
Given the strong competitive representations of the show the evictions are similarly dramatic. Host Julie Chen (nicknamed “Chen-Bot” by fans of the show) is playing the role of war journalist, with a cold face, giving us just the facts. The studio audience is small and subdued, this is not a celebration but a commiseration.
Whilst the American version of Big Brother is largely about it’s competition aspects, The UK version has other things on it’s mind. As with many other British reality, the UK Big Brother series concerns values of class and taste.
Uk Big Brother started in 2000, and up until 2010 was on the commercially operated yet publicly owned channel 4. The format of UK Big Brother is much different to the US version – mostly due to the fact that the viewers still vote out contestants via a poll.
Class placement and belonging are major values within the UK series. Chosen housemates are often from a range of class backgrounds, with a mix of old and new money. It can be seen as quite a harsh or mean show. Unedited swearing is common in episodes and contestants are allowed to smoke on set. The producers cast for scandal, putting in self confessed ‘sugar daddies’, cougars, ladies of leisure and gay policemen – and this is just in the current season.
This can create a large sense of ‘otherness’ with the show. They are characters that the audience are able to laugh at because they are not ‘us’. But It is if these characters show a ‘down to earth’ quality that the audience will back them. Previous winners of UKBB includes two transsexuals, various glamour models and someone who has tourette’s syndrome.
The syntax of the show is quite different from America’s version. Like Australia when it is said someone is ‘playing the game’ it has a negative connotation – meaning that the character is not being their true self on the show. And while the idea of transformation is present, it is seen only as positive when it is a shared experience within the group – characters can only learn something about themselves through the other characters on the show. When the discourse in the dialogue turns to individual transformation – such as using the show to spring board into another career like many have done. This is seen as a negative attribute – an offset of not being ‘real’ or down to earth enough.
Amongst all this, UK Big Brother is the format that relishes in performance the most. Constructed through a task or not, contestants feel it is their duty to bluntly point out their disagreements with each other as this is an expected trope of the show. The audience plays along as well, quickly choosing heroes and villains which will continue in the tabloid newspapers. UK Big Brother plays out like a televised pantomime.
The differences don’t just come from the values of English society but also the style and form of the show. A publicly owned station, channel 4 has a remit which asks of the station to create innovative programs that pushes boundaries. The fact that the daily show airs at 10pm is also an important factor as it allows far racier content that CBS or channel 9 could ever dream. Daily shows are an hour long, which gives the show more time to concentrate on personalities of the characters and less on the show’s mechanics.
This documentary approach also comes out of the documentary history of the UK. Daily shows are peppered with a voice over narration and time displays which play in this, often highlighting unimportant aspects of the day.
This clip of a task highlights the more playful but ‘otherness’ quality of UK Big Brother. Edited like a music video the audience and other contestants are asked to laugh at the misfortune of the contestant – almost like a modern day version of the stocks.
Eviction shows highlight the pantomime aspects of the text. Played to a larger, chanting audience, evicted contestants are often jeered or booed if they are unpopular as they walk down the catwalk and pose for the paparazzi. The UK Big Brother host takes on the role of an amused ringleader, relishing in what they have created.
As Australian viewers are exposed to both US and British styles of reality tv, it’s no surprise that we tend to blend both styles, keeping whatever is most likely to appeal to local audiences.
Australian Big Brother, starting in 2001 and spending most of it’s time on youth orientated station channel 10, shows many of the usual Australian values in reality shows – and established the tropes for many of them. Concerns of cultural cringe surround the discourse of the show but within the text plays out narratives concerning tall poppy syndrome, aspects of fairness and mateship.
Like the British show, the Australian version of Big Brother tends to have a documentary approach, documenting what happens as though it just happened to be unfolding in front of it. Also like the British, Australia can’t seem to resist giving the show a voice over narration – which often directs the viewer to the social value inherent in the text.
But what makes a reality show essentially Australian is the attitudes of both those participating in the shows and those watching it. For instance, early in the sixth season of Big Brother, there was a distrust of contestant Tim Brunero, a journalist who seemed to be a little too smart for his housemates. It tapped into the anti-intellectualism vein in Australia, where clever people are generally not to be trusted.
However, once it was perceived that the rest of the house was ganging up on him, the national characteristic of fairness kicked in with housemates and viewers. Once Tim was seen as the under-dog he was rallied around and lifting him to runner up of the season.
The winner of Big Brother often displays the dominant values of the production, and whilst the US winners are the ‘game players’ and the UK winners are the ‘most entertaining’ the values of winners in Australia have been routinely uniform. As with most Australian reality show winners, Big Brother winners must be shown as down to earth, show a quality of fairness show a strong sense of mateship with someone else in the house and is also a larriken.
The structure and storytelling tropes of the show are much more similar to Britain. Like Britain, many storylines revolve around how ‘real’ contestants are being in the house. Whilst American Big Brother revels in the idea of the contestant’s on screen identities who may shift to fit the logistics of the game, Australia’s format has a large problem with this idea. Last year’s season saw the character of Estelle under close scrutiny because of her apparent multiple personalities, creating a feeling of distrust about her because it’s going against ideals of the simple, easy to understand and down to earth Australian.
Australian evictions are structured less like the British pantomime and more like a celebration. Audiences are large but are under strict instructions not to boo. Australian hosts often fit a mother figure, prizes are given out and show highlights are always positive. The eviction shows feel like a highly produced 21st birthday party.
Whilst Big Brother is just one example there are plenty of other reality shows that can make a great comparison for values. Masterchef is another great example where our local version thrives on all contestants having a fair go and supportive judges, the American version is full of testosterone and competition, contestants will give each other nasty comments to each other and wish them out and judge Gordon Ramsy is quick to point out how wrong you have it.
Wife Swap USA, Britain and Australia again show clear value structures. The British version is obsessed with class, the American version turns the show into a competition. There are many others, all ready for students to explore. Mostly in our classrooms values are taught through the passage of time but not space. Show formats allow students to clearly explore discourses of winners and fairness through accessible texts that help them see the current values Australian text hold that may not have been easily seen without clear contrast of similar texts.
It looks like the Chen-Bot has evicted me, so let me say that It has been real, and I feel like I have learned a lot about myself throughout this once in a lifetime experience. I’d just like to say that I love you all and I wouldn’t change a thing. – and Sam’s the mole.
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