I am currently of the opinion that eighty to ninety per cent of TV is crap. Well, most of it is. It was probably always crap, and we only remember it as being good in the past because the good stuff is more memorable: we remember Jacob Brovlovsky’s Ascent of Man, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth / Blue Planet / etc, and we remember Schalma’s History of Britain, but we forget all the shyte that was on before and after it. So TV was probably always crap.
But it seems to be getting crappier. No, scratch that, the crap is getting crappier, but the good stuff is getting better. How, for example, can one condemn channel four for showing big brother – a programme, the very mention of which had my film lecturer in spasms of rage and bile – when it has the sheer cajones to show Dawkin’s Root of all Evil?
This programme was an open, unmasked attack on religion. While ii agree with Dawkins’ sentiments – wholeheartedly so – I think the way he expresses those sentiments is open to criticism. For example, ” Religion isn’t ‘the root of all evil’ as such, but a primitive attempt to understand what it is to be human and thus provide meaning and purpose to our action. Ironically, Dawkins fails to appreciate how religion has contributed to the humanism he is seeking to defend.”source
In other words, a more balanced approach would be to explain how religion came about, and how it was once needed. At times it seemed like he was preaching rather than teaching, and he did so with the attitude of Kent hovind. What he did note but fail to stress is that science should never be taken at face value, for it is always being refined. It can never offer us absolute answers, saying with 100 per cent authority that something is true. Thus it is open to refinement, change, which is what makes it glorious.
At least dawkins’ programme contributes to the public knowledge. To me, worthy TV should fall into one of three categories: it should be art, science or sport. All three of these can be studied and analysed. For example, Dawkins’ programme can cause debate; it is open to analysis and criticism; thus it makes an intellectual contribution. Just as one can analyse film, you can analyse TV drama or soap opera. Believe it or not, even soaps have a lot to say about culture – the way the dramatis personae interact is a reflection of our society, so for analysis of culture soaps are an excellent tool. The characters remain relatively constant over long periods, so one can look at thee situations these people are placed into to see how society changes. One can look at the shooting styles and mise-en-scene employed and ask why the director made such choices, just as one can ask why a painter chose to paint something in a specific way.
This can equally be said of documentaries: although they are non-fiction, they are still produced – there are reasons why they are shot in specific ways. Although they are mostly scientific, there is some degree of art involved – go look at ‘<arch of the Penguins' and tell me it isn't beautiful.
While both rely on some degree of Scoppophilia and voyeurism, this, I think, is the fundamental difference between documentary and reality TV. My preferring one over the other is intellectually problematic because they are both are about watching things: we watch the moppets in the big brother house, but we also watch the animals in the jungle. What’s the difference? Why is one reprehensible and the other beautiful?
I see no art in big brother, as I do in documentaries. Admittedly, big brother has a director who chooses which camera to feed to air, while documentaries have directors who chose how to shoot things. However, their palette is limited in that the cameras are fixed throughout the house and they have no control over the subject matter. Thus, Big Brother is not art, but is it science? No, because there are differences between Reality TV and documentary. The real difference is the difference between voyeurism and Scoppophilia – one has overtones of perversion, the other is simply the joy of seeing. In other words, one is manipulative while the other is not; one is unnatural while the other is not. We look at documentaries because they show us nature, albeit artistically chosen shots of nature – they quench our thirst to find out about the world, which is the urge that underpins most of science. Reality TV shows like big brother are fundamentally different – they do not focus on natural phenomenon because the programme makers themselves manipulate the subject matter. Hence they fit neither category.
What, then, is the point of reality TV? they are neither art nor science, but are simply voyeurism. They defy any intellectual analysis because they make no comment – they say nothing of culture or nature, they do not contribute to the human condition: these programmes are simply unthinking voyeurism, a complete waste of time, made only because they are cheap and people are foolish enough to watch it.