Reality television has made a strong impression not just in terms of Nielsen ratings but also in terms of its spill-over nature into everyday life. Even if you do manage to evade the reality-style programming on your television (congratulations, that’s not a small feat), it is almost certain that the genre will still touch some aspect of your life. Take for example the fact that, depending on where you live, you may ‘feature’ on up to 300 cameras per day; CCTV surveillance cameras that is, the highest number of which is to be found in the UK.
Even with the above seemingly side-tracked example, we can begin to see how we are auto-subscribed into the regime of a ‘spectacle society’. We become a mediated subject, quite aware that someone, somewhere may be watching our ‘reality’. If we are particularly lucky (or unlucky, pending our interpretation) our ensuing CCTV antics may make it onto a real television show…
Where does this modern cycle of ‘reality’ begin? If we had to pinpoint a specific geographic location for the birth of this modern ‘reality’ genre, we could say that it is the UK. The Brits, already quite accustomed to high levels of CCTV surveillance, are also the leaders in reality television programming. An article in The Economist magazine measured that up to 43% of all reality television templates originate from Great Britain – many of which have now migrated overseas.
While some critics dismiss the reality genre as quotidian and pure entertainment, critical theorists of the likes of Althusser would argue that it is precisely those taken-for-granted artifacts of our culture that deserve the most scrutiny. Althusser would likely encourage us to ask: who dominates our ‘reality’ and why?
Author Philip Schlesinger provides one possible gateway into exploring these questions. He describes the UK as a creativity broker; a country which deals, exchanges and banks on ideas. This notion is not so disparate from Richard Florida’s depiction of the state of affairs on the other side of the pond; the US, that is. Florida estimates that some 40 million Americans (and rising) are part of the creative class; a rather lose term to describe those that generate ideas for a living. Where the US and the UK converge is in their powerful shaping force on reality – both the television format and the substance of our ideas.
However, are we seeing any shift in these dominant idea-production centers? What about globalization, you ask? Well, Bollywood is close on the heels of Hollywood and countries such as the Netherlands now rival the British grip on the reality television format. This is important because it demonstrates a ‘contraflow’; a term used in the realm of journalism to describe the ‘counter’ movement of ideas, news and information from centers perceived as less dominant (such as The Netherlands, India, etc.,) to ones seen as more dominant (the UK and the US, for example). In reality, this pattern has become rather diversified in recent years and may now be more appropriately termed ‘multiflow’ to account for the variety and complexity of today’s geographic flow of ideas. Nonetheless, it is important to note where reality comes from not just for the sake of Althusser but for the rest of us. Reality as a genre, or as a set of widely adopted ideas, is crucial to understand not least for its economic impacts or for its engagement and influence over the popular imagination.