June 01, 2009

A Duty of Care to the Stars of Reality TV?

This entry responds to two broadcasts I watched/listened to over the past two days.  The first was a C4 programme about the controversial history of BIG BROTHER and the headlines it provked, and the other was Radio 4's 'Start the Week', in which two worrying academics sounded off about the treatment of Susan Boyle in the aftermath of her defeat on 'Britain's Got Talent'.  Although the programmes were not similar in tone, theme or even subject, they started me thinking about one aspect of reality TV which seems rarely to be debated - what do we do with the stars once the cameras are turned off?

One of the people on 'start the week' were made the interesting, if laboured, comparison between the producers of 'BGT' and his own work as an academic researcher.  His key point was to stress that, were the TV folk subject to the same kind of ethical scrutiny that researchers must go through in order to conduct their experiments (he was a criminologist, but I would say that most of those working in the social sciences have the same issues), then the likes of Susan Boyle would never be allowed near a TV studio, let aloneX  within Simon Cowell's evil-eyed radius.  Because their game is commercial, not 'in the public interest', apparently ITV do not treat their subjects with the same kind of dignity and respect as lab subjects in experiments.  This academic used the term 'duty of care', clearly criticizing ITV for failing, both in Boyle's case and in that of Hollie Steel - whose brattish tantrum seems to have been accepted by the general public as the behaviour of any normal child under immense pressure.  I fail to see how this argument stands up, when the other children on the programme were polite, courteous and pleasant, but this is beside the point.  What I am getting at here, is the question of whether such a 'duty of care' does exist when 'ordinary' people are thrust into the public eye?

Its an intriguing question.  On the one hand, it is very difficult to feel any sympathy with contestants who audition for programmes like BGT, X Factor or Big Brother, then find that fame is difficult to cope with. We think 'they knew what they were letting themselves in for in the first place', or if they didn't, they really should know by now.  But even though superficially, people may seem mentally equipped and prepared for what might face them, who really knows how they would cope with such a large and fundamental change.  DO we really suppose that when Susan Boyle turned up to the auditions for BGT, she could possibly have guessed at the extent to which the hysteria would rise?  I am fairly certain she would not have anticipated the vile and vitriolic attacks of the tabloids, nor the patronising analysis of the 'boyle effect' that went on in newspapers that should know better.  Now she has been taken off to the Priory for r&r, in the quickest rise and fall celebrity story to date - from nobody to rehab in seven short weeks.  I only hope that she has adequate friends and family to look out for her real interests, and doesn't fall prey to the avaricious, conniving bunch of managers and talent agents that usually swarm around reality TV stars.

Much may be made, in the next few weeks, of the duty of care to Susan Boyle after the fact: how she copes with the enormous fame now she has it.  My question is, does the duty of care to reality TV contestants not begin long before the cameras roll?  Big Brother has a well-known screening process, in which potential contestants are screened and screened before they hit the screens to test whether or not they are potential psychotics or not.  I am being a little facetious here to prove a point.  I worry about this screening process.  Many of the contestants who feature on big brother (Shabaz from series 5, Alexandra and Denis from the last series) are so deranged and disturbed that you wonder how they were not immediately referred to a mental health professional when they were auditioned.  Any decent sense of 'care' for these people would prevent their appearing in the kind of pressure cooker that reality TV creates.

For its subjects, reality TV is an incubator for a cruel and hostile life in the public eye.  I believe that the people behind the cameras should feel a duty to prepare those in front of them for what might come next, and also should accept some responsibility for the outcome.  But while these subjects are still seen as oddities, curios and eccentrics, rather than human beings, it is unlikely that they will be afforded the proper treatment they need after the lights are turned off.


April 16, 2009

PSB, economics, politics and other things I should understand

I have been trying to get to grips with recent movements in understanding, theorising, even practicing Public Service Broadcasting. By recent I mean the last thirty years, which for most people isn't that recent but academics can be a rather slow moving bunch.  It is proving to be quite difficult, mostly because I am totally unschooled in economics, which seems to have become the basis for conceptualising public culture over this period.

Using the language of 'market failure', 'externalities', 'merit goods', rival/non-rival and exculdable/non-excludable and the like produces analysis that looks empirical, provable, rational and unarguable.  I'm not sure that what public service means surely is reducible to equations, charts, tables. The way I understand public service is a bit like religious beliefs or political ideologies - it is something that means different things to different people, with certain core components which all can agree on.  Some of these are economic, or quasi-economic - a public means of funding, paid for by all in return for universal access to the service provided; some are political - the creation of a sphere for debate and the exchange of ideas where democratic citizenship may more effectively be played out, given the requisite information and dissemination of skills.  Some even dare to be 'aesthetic' - the emphasis on quality (more recently, on 'standards') for example. 

A key problem with the concept has been its flexibility, but this has also been an asset to it.  For example, we can understand it simultaneously as a means to disseminate a rather rigid 'national' culture and as a way of understanding and appreciating the diverse communities and nations which come together to create that culture.  PSB has been able to change with the times, to maintain its relevance and to meet the changing needs of the crucial 'public' that it was designed to serve. Now it is most commonly seen as a manner of making programmes which would not be made in a purely commercial set up.  There are obvious reasons why this is relevant in my field of research, since the British Film industry is an example of where a market completely saturated by commercial products from a parallel culture (Hollywood) seems to have no room left for another desirable, but risky and low-yield, product (British national cinema).

To me, though, it is access rights which are the crucial point of PSB, and finding a way of addressing people which is inclusive as well as interesting, informative and so on.  The point is not just that a PSB makes quality, diverse, interesting and challenging programming.  It is also that everybody has the right, everybody has the chance and everybody has the desire to see it.  Creating this desire to be informed and educated has been a real asset of the PSB set up.  Creating a taste for quality programming, without falling into the trap of telling people what their tastes ought to be in a condescending way is the real test of the public service broadcaster. 

Furthermore, creating a system wherein new talents can be developed, and different means and manners of address can be explored should be the function of a public service broadcaster.  It seems to me that the British PSBs carry out this function well, although less so now perhaps than in the past.  The BBC is particularly guilty of exploiting and over-exposing its most popular new talents (for example, James Corden and Mat Horne, although I think they probably did much of the over-exposing themselves.)

For now, I will try my best to understand a language in which I remain untrained, and of which I am sceptical, if only so that I can join the debate at the level at which it has been conducted in recent times.  Frustrating as this may be, I think it may now be the only way of defending a system that has been at the heart of public culture throughout its lifespan and without which our democratic (not to mention cultural) life would be much poorer.


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  • I didn't watch any of "Britain's got Talent" until the final so I didn't get caugtr up in it all. I … by Sue on this entry

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