- Shooting People:Adventures in Reality TV
New television shows are rarely new. In considering the history of reality programming I am reminded that, as Fred Allen put it, "imitation is the sincerest form of television." The only things that truly seem to change are the fashions. Although currently enjoying widespread popularity, reality programming has been around since the introduction of television. At one time it was known simply as "nonfiction" or "actuality" programming and included today's reality television forerunners—shows such as Candid Camera, Real People, and The Gong Show. As a media phenomenon reality television has very recently attracted the attention of media scholars. From this perspective reality television touches on several areas of interest, including the relation of public to private and the relationship between media producers, participants, and viewers. The popular press has focused largely on the voyeuristic and exhibitionistic aspects of the genre, aspects that are often framed as pathological. Despite the increase of interest, there is still very little in the way of scholarly research.
The format is the most feted and denigrated phenomenon in recent broadcasting history and permeates all kinds of programming. Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen's work, Shooting People: Adventures in Reality TV, is a combination of the popular and scholarly that attempts to grapple with the implications of questionable production techniques, ethics, and globalism for both the individual contestants of reality TV game shows and the culture generally. As the double meaning in the title suggests, Brenton and Cohen examine production strategies in their benign as well as their pernicious forms. The end result, they argue, is television at its lowest.
The authors lay out the book in two parts. The first is a broad historical grounding of reality game shows, and the second is a critical examination of what takes place inside the current crop with a focus on two of the most popular reality game shows—Survivor and Big Brother. They argue that through these texts we can "chart the changing nature of the global television industry, and focus on spectacles of extremity and cruelty never previously produced in the name of light entertainment" (9). The authors also claim that these shows fetishize the ordinary, elevate self-experience to the level of grand narrative and ultimate truth, exploit their subjects, and employ professionals who neglect the psychological hazards and ethical considerations of their involvement. They write, "The first person thus raised to the status of sole truth, sole value and sole source of narrative makes few allusions to things beyond its boundaries. . . . There is no aspect of personal experiences too small to fix a camera on—trivia, indeed, is the new rock 'n' roll" (11). Finally, Brenton and Cohen consider some partnerships between "real politics" and reality television.
The overarching question the authors pose is, "How did this format, with its current lack of social purpose (while deeply immersed in the mundane and applying torture-style techniques), trace its roots to the Griersonian social issue documentary of the 1930s whose purpose was to bring about positive social change?" (10). This is a lot for such a small book to handle. The result is an interesting and entertaining read that encourages a call for an even more in-depth and nuanced analysis of the global, social, and psychological significance of the reality television format. [End Page 80]
Television documentary has had a long and interesting trajectory. John Grierson aptly described documentary as a "creative treatment of reality." Early documentaries by producers like John Grierson attempt to educate audiences about their social conditions with the assumption that greater awareness would bring pressure to bear on the government for change. Brenton and Cohen argue that what they see as noble attempts in service to the public have gone beyond creative treatment and have become entertainment spectacles in formats such as Big Brother, Survivor, Temptation Island, and Fear Factor. What these shows have in common, they say, is a controlled environment and a lack of any social concern.
It has been noted that documentary's concern with content...