Thursday, June 1, 2017

No Contest

It’s not hard to see why reality TV is popular with television production companies: It is cheap to make. Instead of depending on conventional writers and actors, reality shows rely more on recording and editing technology itself, which allows vast amounts of footage to be captured and pared down into satisfying, formulaic narratives. But what do these formulas consist of, and what makes them so compelling?

Reality TV has two basic genres, according to media scholar June Deery: docusoap, which primarily revolves around interpersonal relationships and lifestyles — shows like the Real Housewives and Big Brother franchises, or Duck Dynasty and the Kardashian shows — and competition, which explicitly pits participants against one another in what are typically elimination contests, using rewards and punishments to orient, motivate, and rationalize their behavior. But in certain respects, this distinction between genres is superficial. Regardless of whether participants are playing a literal game, in both reality genres they are ultimately competing against one another for attention and screen time.

That kind of attention can propel a reality-TV cast member into future career opportunities: more appearances on more shows, lucrative product endorsements, and even their own lines of products, as with the Kardashians’ media and merchandise empire or LA Ink star Kat Von D’s makeup line. Reality TV is an engine for turning attention into money not merely in the form of advertisements in and around the shows, but also across the participants’ lives, what the shows turn into platforms. This makes garnering attention the driving force behind the shows and their governing ethos — the model for how one should live and what one should want.

Competitive reality TV might seem like a meritocratic alternative to the attention-grabbing instigation and ham-fisted melodrama of reality soaps. The format often exchanges screaming matches and backbiting for tests of skill and strength. These shows trade on the idea that hard work and individual talent eventually triumph, within competitions that ostensibly place all contestants on a fair, equal footing. But often the shows are less interested in celebrating merit than in re-creating an ideology of ruthless individualism in our living rooms and Twitter hashtags. These shows, by design, present individualism as an inherent part of human sociality: Manipulation, not cooperation, allows participants to effectively compete, whether in the context of winning challenges or gaining audience attention. Competition and conflict both reflect reality TV’s insistence on individuated narratives, reflecting the common wisdom this is what audiences want to see, and thus what advertisers are willing to pay for.

But why would audiences default to wanting to watch individuals pitted against each other? Such a formula may be popular because of how it conforms to our life experiences under an individualist and competitive model of capitalism. These principles become sense-making mechanisms, offering a way to understand and interpret our experience of culturally dominant narratives about the necessity of competition. As political theorist Wendy Brown argues in Undoing the Demos, our current neoliberal order is grounded in “a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms” and grounds individual subjectivity in notions of entrepreneurship. We are accordingly all market actor competing to increase the value of our human capital in the workplace, the educational system, and even the dating realm. Our lives, too, can be conceived as platforms, and our experiences relevant only insofar as they enhance the value of our skill sets for potential employers.

Individualism can only be a winning strategy in a system designed to reward it. This is as true of reality TV as it is of neoliberal society more generally. (...)

Enter The Great British Bake Off. It is a competition with winners and losers, yet unlike other reality TV competitions, the contestants generally accommodate each other and even assist each other at times, freeing up counter space for their beignets when needed. The bakers on the show copy each other all the time, and no one seems to mind. They look around the room to see what others are doing, getting hints on proper technique from the open floor plan, with no complaints from the other competitors. In seven seasons, there has been only one serious charge of sabotage — “bingate,” when a competitor took another baker’s ice cream out of the freezer for too long, causing it to melt — but that seems likely to have been an unfortunate accident.

While reality TV judges are often merciless, Bake Off’s hosts Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are supportive, encouraging, and gentle with criticism. The show’s presenters, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, cheer the contestants on and lend a hand when needed. In the conventional “confessional” asides, contestants are without the usual snark and disdain for other competitors. They may be nervous, proud, disappointed, or even a bit jealous, but they are never mean. Rather than relying on conflict and cruelty, Bake Off entertains audiences through charm, pleasant and relatable characters whom you can’t help but root for, and baking that showcases contestants’ skill rather than their ability to stir up drama. It offers an alternative to universalizing narratives of competitive individualism grounded in economic rationality, instead making cooperation and civility not only consumable but explanatory. The show is not just pleasing to watch; it offers a gratifying model of the human experience.

by Britney Summit-Gil, Real Life | Read more:
Image: Harry Gruyaert, Magnum Photos