Friday, June 22, 2007

Baudrillard's Children

Television has long walked the line between fact and fiction in subtler ways than cinema. The smaller scale of many TV dramas, the success of soap opera and latterly the domination of reality TV demonstrate that fiction that looks like mundane reality and reality that is dressed up as drama cross-pollinate ideas and themes with ever increasing interdependence. Yet despite this symbiosis and the constant allegations of fakery in reality TV there are important differences between it and drama.

TV drama is art, as in artifice; reality TV, nominally, is not. A TV drama uses complex editing, imagined people, sets and as many takes by actors as it requires to get the director's vision on tape. The entire process is a creative endeavour. Every situation represents a deliberate choice by someone working toward the production of a cultural text.

Reality television purports to place real people in real situations and to record the events that follow. The reality of the show may be wildly variable from the highly controlled and managed environment of "Big Brother" or "The Apprentice" to the apparently transparent modified reality of "Britain's Got Talent" where a situation is created in front of an audience both live and televisual and the programme appears to merely record the proceedings: there is an obvious emphasis on the putting on of a show rather than the concealed camera surveillance of the "Big Brother" house.

All documentaries and reality-based television show editorialise; their subjectivity is unavoidable. As I've discussed before, the mere act of selecting a moment, a camera angle and the timing of edits means that any pretence toward objectivity is just that, a pretence. It does not necessarily follow, however, that this means that documentaries are faked and no different to drama. Nonetheless, the line between a real event captured and the dramatisation of an event is blurring. For example, the exits of all contestants on "The Apprentice" were filmed months in advance of their actual departure from the show, their reactions are faked and the narrative continuity is created in post-production rather than real-time. A further example: the office where "The Apprentice" interviews are filmed is a set, based on a Alan Sugar's real office but with the improved lighting facilities that a purpose built set offer.

The BBC is quite open about these modifications to the natural course of events and whilst they are not apparent to the casual viewer they do not push the show into the realms of drama, unlike drama masquerading as documentary, such as United 93 which I've discussed before. What is happening with these decisions to use a set that looks like an office but with the trappings of a studio to facilitate higher quality images and the pre-recording of the contestant's exits to enable slicker editing for greater emotional impact is that the events in the show and the contestants themselves become simulacra - carefully crafted representations of what the real could be, a copy of reality - more real than real, in sharper focus with better lighting than plain dowdy reality could manage.

Mark Burnett, the creator of "Survivor" amongst other reality shows, has avoided the use of the word 'reality' when describing his programmes. "I tell good stories." he says, "It really is not reality TV. It really is unscripted drama." Whilst I agree that "Survivor" et al bear little resemblance to our perceived day to day reality, it is also questionable whether the epithet "unscripted drama" is very suitable either.

Unlike a TV drama, there are real-world implications to the process of a reality show, mostly financial, be it in terms of actual prize money or follow-on fees from newspaper stories and so forth. One could argue that actors pick roles with the same motivations but the actor is picked to play a pre-defined role that exists solely within the realm of the drama, the reality-TV show contestant is picked to be their portrayal of themselves. The connection between the friends, family and the contestant themself is pulled into the show to emphasise the reality. It is this suggestion of a connection between the contestant and the outside world, the one in which we live, which differentiates him or her from the actor. The relationships, domestic arrangements and history of the contestant are an integral part of the creation of this reality. Thus we know that Paul Potts, the winner of "Britain's Got Talent" is a Carphone Warehouse salesman. This is important information, it sells his reality to us; he becomes more real. Reality TV is itself a simulacrum of real life where the notion of truth has been usurped by a copy of reality - a hyper-realistic, more real than real version to the point where, as Jean Baudrillard put it, "the real no longer exists".

It is not enough that Paul Potts, is a talented aspiring singer who has received much, self financed, professional tuition in order that he might achieve his dreams of singing professionally, nor that he has sung in fringe opera for ten years. What we need is an 'undiscovered artist', a telephone salesman from Port Talbot with a 'hidden talent'; the judges on the show even described him thus. It is not a hidden talent however; two minutes of search on Google proves that, but what makes for the better reality/story, the whole truth, or the selected parts of his past that made up what we saw in ITV's version of reality? Obviously it is the latter and so that is what we got. The hyper-reality of "Britain's got Talent" is partly faux documentary, for example, the interviews conducted as the contestants come off stage were clearly not recorded at the time the editing suggests (the semi-finalist puppeteer has a different puppet when he is interviewed than he had on stage) and partly the careful selection of facts about the artists' backgrounds to create the desired reality of the programme makers. Nothing that was said about Mr Potts is untrue, so "Britain's Got Talent" is not drama, but it is not reality either. With the addition of the edits, the lighting, the coaching and the hyperbole, he becomes more real than real. He becomes a hyperreal entity and so we watch hyperreality TV.

Truly, we are all Baudrillard's children now.

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