We begin a study of reality television, beginning with Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute, a fly-on-the-wall series located within the corridors of Princess Anne Hospital (UK) where it’s ‘two (babies) born every episode’.
Mummy blogger, Carolin @ Mummy Alarm expresses her overjoyed enthusiasm for watching childbirth on television:
'…I can’t wait to follow the birth stories of this season’s couples. Last year, I was pregnant with Amy and didn’t miss a single episode… I was watching the series religiously and soaked up every little thing like a sponge…'
I do not share this enthusiasm. But what is reality TV? What are some of the features of ‘reality TV’ as a genre?
Researching this amorphous thing called ‘reality tv’ has proven to be overwhelmingly inconclusive. I mostly found that thinkers on this subject tend to preface any writing with something along the lines of, “...producing a particular definition of Reality tv is nevertheless complex…” (Holmes & Jermyn, 2004), and a lot of writing tends to boil down to generic conventions, “Reality tv is a catch-all category that includes a wide range of entertainment programmes about real people,” (Hill, 2005).
Holmes & Jermyn in Understanding Reality Television (2004) argue that producing a particular definition of reality tv is complex due to the, “fundamentally hybrid nature of the forms in question” and also because of the, “range of programming to which the term ‘reality TV’ has been applied”.
Richard Kilborn (1994, in Holmes & Jermyn) recognised early that the term itself had already become, “something of a catch-all phrase”, but did at least offer some prescriptive parametres for its definition:
- Recording ‘on the wing’, and frequently with the help of lightweight video equipment, of events in the lives of individuals and groups;
- The attempt to simulate such real-life events through various forms of dramatised reconstruction;
- The incorporation of this material in suitably edited form into an attractively packaged programme which can be promoted on the strength of its reality credentials
The issue with these parametres according to Holmes & Jermyn is that the first two descriptions seem to prioritise ‘real’ crime and emergency services programming, and the third broad enough to encapsulate just about everything else masquerading as ‘reality’.
Despite clarifying issues surrounding the widespread circulation of the term ‘reality tv’, it is key to note that other early attempts to define the genre commonly emphasise the:
'Importance of a focus on ‘real life’ and ‘real people’ as the crucial criteria, as well as the technological forms through which this subject matter was mediated (such as the video camcorder).' (Holmes & Jermyn).
Ouellette and Hay in Better Living Through Reality TV (2008) alternatively focus on other subgenres in their introduction, specifically reality tv’s relationship to ‘governing at a distance’ the ethics, behaviours and routines of everyday people in observational formats such as Big Brother.
They also go some way to list its various mutations: dating shows, make-overs, job competitions, gamedocs, reality soaps, interventions, lifestyle demonstrations and surveillance, which:
'Share a preoccupation with testing, judging, advising and rewarding the conduct of ‘real’ people in the capacities as contestants, workers, housemates, family members, homeowners, romantic partners, patients and consumers.' (Ouellette & Hay, 2008).
It is therefore only possible to conclude that what underpins the range of written ideas and actual television programming, conceivably described as ‘reality tv’, is primarily its consistent claimto the real.
Seminal documentary thinker Bill Nichols, categorised the ways in which documentary forms make truth claims. The building of rhetorical images, direct statements made about the historical world as fact, mobile recordings seemingly without intervention (Nichols, 1991) – these elements are perhaps most characteristic of Nichols’ Expository Mode, and most akin to surveillance-style reality television formats like Big Brother, and more so, Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute.
John Corner described television’s “greatly expanded range of popular images of the real” (in Holmes & Jermyn) as ‘a documentary look across programming’. One Born Every Minute is ‘more reality, less tv’ than Big Brother in a number of ways.
Firstly, its characters are more like Nichols’ ‘social actors’ than they are reward-driven and manipulated contestants. In One Born the ‘social actor’ or person, “we observe are seldom trained or coaxed in their behavior…individuals represent themselves.” (1991). This is not true for Big Brother.
The most obvious point to me then, is the degree of dramatisation, of embellishment beyond what is soberly recorded in One Born, is far less than that of the 24/7 surveillance of Big Brother, requiring much more selective editing due simply to the vast amount of footage. This also has to do with the well known ‘hand-of-God’ manipulation of housemates to behave in entertaining ways, or in ways which fan conflict and draw out character dynamics.
However, One Born also features interviews with ward nurses and the odd post-birth catch-up with recent parents. Nichol’s says, “When interviews contribute to an expository mode of representation, they generally serve as evidence for the filmmaker’s, or text’s, argument.”(1991).
In One Born Every Minute, this generally has to do with why midwives love delivering babies, why parents love their newborns… love, gush, giggle etc. It does little however, to alleviate the very real images of blood and guts depicted only moments prior spilling from a woman’s parts.
One Born Every Minute – popular factual programming? Show it to your teenager and get some sleep.