Reality TV has emerged as a visible site for contemporary debates over modern fame. In fact, while issues of ‘taste’ and cultural value have long since shaped conceptions of celebrity (Turner, Bonner, Marshall 178), the issue of fame has played a central role in the negative cultural criticisms of Reality TV. Reality programming is often invoked as short-hand to illustrate the moral ills of contemporary fame – as if it has somehow swept away the certainties of ‘the past’ where discourses of public recognition, visibility and reward are concerned. In exploring Reality TV as a site of contemporary fame, I examine here some of these claims to ‘transformation’, not so much to defend the form’s participation in celebrity culture, as to indicate that there is more going on here than these (increasingly familiar) critiques appear to suggest. We can note, for example, their tendency to simplify the history of fame (which of course then makes it far easier to situate Reality TV as a conclusive break with the past). Equally, these criticisms seem of limited use when it comes to considering what is clearly a broader cultural fascination with fame in Reality TV. Furthermore, such critiques tend to operate at a very general level, often paying little attention to how fame is actually articulated in Reality TV, and the possibilities of differences between formats.
The period 2000-1 saw a number of global reality game shows emerge in the UK and elsewhere and in general terms, critics often foregrounded fame as part of a broader negative response to the use of factual programming as primarily entertainment. The pervasive screen examples of ‘would-be presenters’ or ‘wannabe models’ were invoked as antithetical to perceptions of factual programming’s traditionally more ‘worthy’ (and implicitly public service) agenda (Holmes, “All”). But in the context of fame, it is more appropriate to suggest that a number of critical positions on Reality TV have emerged. For example, in what is probably the most prevalent perspective in circulation, contestants have persistently been constructed as exemplifying, and in many ways accelerating, a shift toward a fame culture in which an emphasis on ‘famous for being famous’ has regrettably triumphed over the concepts of ‘talent’ and ‘hard work’ (Holmes, “All”) (even though this perspective is clearly far from new) (see Marshall 9-11). Second, and related to the emphasis on ‘undeserved’ fame above, has been a position which foregrounds the prominence of falsity and manufacture. Here, Reality TV contestants are seen as falling victim to the manipulative powers of a ruthless fame-making machine. Often yoked to an emphasis on the ephemeral nature of their celebrity, here we encounter cautionary tales about the price of public visibility and the lure of immediate wealth, a penalty when, as one programme put it, ‘instant television fame is over in a dream’ (Tonight with Trevor McDonald, ITV1, 13 Feb. 2004). In contrast, the centrality of the ‘ordinary’ person turned celebrity has been read in terms of democratisation, both in relation to access to the televisual airwaves (a position championed by broadcasters and producers, for example) (Bazalgette) and to the dynamics of public/ media visibility itself (see Biressi and Nunn).
These positions clearly intersect, their distinctions largely inflected by the perspective of the observer. For example, what is the producer’s claim to ‘democratisation’ is the critic’s class-based distaste for all these ‘awful ordinary’ people on television (see Bazalgette). While each of these positions is limited and simplistic, collectively they do speak to changing cultural conceptions of fame. Joshua’s Gamson’s (Claims, “Assembly”) work in particular has usefully suggested a picture in which certain positions on, or ‘explanations of fame’, have had a historical significance in vying for cultural visibility (although the contours of these narratives must be swiftly drawn here). With the growth of the arts and technologies and the establishment of celebrity as a mass phenomenon (see Gamson, “Assembly” 261), public visibility became increasingly detached from aristocratic standing, with discourses of democracy – as epitomised by the American context – increasingly coming to the fore. With the Hollywood studio system representing celebrity’s later period of industrialisation, and with a controlled production system producing celebrities for a mass audience, the earlier theme of ‘greatness’ became muted into questions of ‘star quality’ and ‘talent’ (Gamson, “Assembly” 264). While the focus may now have been predominantly on the culture of the ‘personality’, Gamson argues that the primary narrative was still one of ‘natural’ rise (“Assembly” 264). However, what is crucial here is that the increasing visibility of the publicity machine itself gradually began to pose a threat to this myth. Shaped by industrial and cultural shifts such as the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the emergence of television, as well as the increasing growth of celebrity journalism, the second half of the 20th century witnessed the increasing prevalence of the ‘manufacture’ discourse, where it henceforth becomes what Gamson describes as a ‘serious contender’ in explaining celebrity (Claims 44). This is not to suggest that the older ideological myths of fame are entirely obscured but rather that, perhaps as never before, the two positions precariously jostle for visibility in the same space. Indeed, Gamson suggests that by the late 20th century, it was possible to discern strategies intended to ‘cope’ with the increasing potential for disjuncture here. In particular, he points toward the twin devices of the ‘exposure’ of the process and the construction of an ironic and mocking perspective on celebrity culture, both of which can be seen to offer the audience a flattering position of power (Claims 276).
In many ways, Reality TV would appear to be paradigmatic of these discursive shifts in fame. While I emphasise the specificity of particular formats below, Reality TV in the form of Big Brother, Pop Idol or celebrity-reality shows (such as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!), have made a particular claim to ‘reveal’ or ‘expose’ the process of fame construction – whether in terms of following ‘ordinary’ hopefuls from the audition stages to their entrance into the media world, or by claiming to offer us an unprecedented ‘access’ to existing celebrities (‘stripping’ away the celebrity façade). (While of course what Richard Dyer termed ‘the negotiation of authenticity’, or the bid to think in terms of ‘really’, has long since structured the textual mediation of celebrity, it can conceivably be seen to have witnessed an accelerated shift in these contexts.) Equally, in terms of the decline of older myths of fame, these shows exhibit a self-conscious acknowledgement of the process of image production and construction, and the use of celebrity for commercial purposes. Lastly, in mediating the threat of the manufacture discourse, they evidently speak quite explicitly to an emphasis on the ‘power’ of the audience given that, through the now familiar use of interactivity (see Holmes, “But”), they construct the audience as operating as the ultimate creator of the celebrity.
This already begins to indicate how, responding to and participating in particular discursive shifts in fame, Reality TV negotiates contemporary discourses on celebrity in complex and contradictory ways. Yet this would also need to acknowledge the differences and specificities of particular formats. For example, Big Brother may well be invoked as the ultimate example of the decline of older myths of fame. The programme does not suggest that a special ‘talent’, or ‘hard work’, are necessary for fame. Indeed, time in the house is clearly organised around an excess of leisured time in which, as the primary antidotes to boredom, eating, sleeping and sunbathing are repetitiously played out before the camera’s gaze. Contestants talk self-consciously about being ‘produced’ as celebrities while in the house (in terms of the programme and wider press coverage), with the understanding that each other’s behaviour and self-presentation is clearly directed to this end. The highly opportunistic and potentially calculating conception of fame is thus self-consciously displayed in the programme itself.
In comparison, drawing on the older genre of the TV talent show, the Reality pop programmes such as Popstars (2001, UK), Pop Idol (2001-2, 2003, UK), Fame Academy (2002, 2003, UK) and most recently, The X-Factor (2004, UK) are more explicitly configured around the ‘search’ for a star. In this respect, they are specifically concerned with dramatising a power relationship between music industry and audience, a dialogue which is mapped onto the narrative of the star-making process. Certainly, on one level, they are self-consciously a product of the manufacture era of fame, produced for the scrutiny of a media-aware audience entirely conversant with the concept of ‘image’ construction. In tracking the contestants through auditions, training and re-styling, we witness the open production of the famous self – often trying on different ‘images’ week by week – and the ideological constraints (such as those pertaining to body image or physical appearance) under which this process must take place. The judges equally claim to be representative articulations of the ‘reality’ of the business by foregrounding the importance of image ‘packaging’ and the selling of the self. (As the notoriously ‘nasty’ judge Simon Cowell explains in one edition of Pop Idol, ‘Ten year old girls in Hull have to want to be you… They have to buy into the “image”. Do you see?’) (12 Sep. 2003). In short, they often boldly foreground the capitalistic nature of celebrity production.
But at the same time, these programmes clearly draw upon, and arguably engage the audience by, much articulating older myths of fame. Given that, in Gamson’s terms, the pervasive nature of the manufacture discourse ultimately represents a threat to the commercial enterprise of celebrity, these shows provide exemplary evidence of the ways in which the two claims-to-fame stories continue to jostle for cultural legitimacy. Celebrating a mythic emphasis on a unique, authentic and gifted self, there is a persistent bid to lay claim to an indefinable sense of ‘specialness’. Indeed, the phrases ‘you’ve got “star quality” or the “X factor” have become an increasingly self-conscious convention in the shows themselves – as suggested by the naming of the most recent UK format, The X-Factor. In their emphasis on ‘ordinariness’, ‘lucky breaks’, ‘specialness’ and ‘hard work’, they are paradigmatic of the meritocratic ideology of the ‘access myth’ (Dyer, Stars). As Fame Academy’s singing coach Carrie Grant gravely tells the contestants: ‘The only place where “success” comes before work is in the dictionary’ (14 Dec. 2002). In this respect, without the irony or humour that has become such a pervasive aspect of contemporary celebrity coverage (see Gamson, Claims, “Assembly”), the programmes clearly also re-peddle traditional explanations of fame for contemporary cultural consumption (Holmes, “Reality”).
Dismissals of these programmes in terms of their promotion of ‘manufactured pop’ ignore the fact that ‘authenticity’ is not really configured around the music itself. Pop music (and particularly TV pop) has historically been configured as ‘the most inauthentic music’ (Moore 220), whether in terms of industrial production, form/ sound, or artist expression and identity. But in many ways the programmes openly acknowledge the derivative and packaged nature of ‘pop’. The aspirant pop stars often sing cover versions on the shows (although they are valued and praised for inserting their ‘individual’ style), and in Pop Idol we witness each of the three finalists record the winning song in the studio prior to the result of the (live) television vote. In this respect, evoking Adorno’s famous critique of popular music’s standardised form, their voice is a cog in a wider machine – a component part which can be substituted and exchanged. But Reality TV’s serial form, aesthetic style and pursuit of ‘the real’, asks us to buy into the authenticity of the self, that the participants are – despite the image packaging – somehow the same person that auditioned at the start. There is often equally the suggestion that Reality TV may bring out the ‘real’, ‘special’ self that was partly inside all along: As one contestant in Fame Academy is chastised after a live performance: ‘We’ve had you showing that you can be Westlife or Bryan Adams, but have we had Barry yet? Where, Barry, is the “Barryness” of Barry?’ (19 Sep. 2003). But in broad terms, with factory workers, waitresses or train drivers turning into superstars, contestants are often imagined as being more ‘authentic’ because of their class background, something which has historically been conceived to signify ‘ordinariness’ within narratives of fame. This is again paradigmatic of the older, traditional discourse of the success myth (and its close companion, the American Dream) (Dyer, Stars). In the Reality format, this is also factored though the sense that we have ‘known’ them in the moment of authentic ‘pre-fame’, when, in short, they were ‘just like us’.
In the context of his wider argument that stars work to articulate ideas of personhood or selfhood (Dyer, Stars), one of Richard Dyer’s key interventions was to suggest that stars function to work through discourses of individualism (see also Marshall). Working from a broadly Marxist perspective, he explained how the perpetual attempt to negotiate authenticity in the star image worked to promote a particular concept of personhood on which capitalist society depends. Dyer conceptualised this as ‘a separable, coherent quality, located “inside” consciousness and variously termed “the self”, “the soul”, “the subject”…’ (9). Although, in the context of contemporary celebrity culture and the discourses of postmodernism, Dyer’s model of the self has been critiqued and challenged (see Lovell, King), it by no means seems redundant here. We are absolutely encouraged to seek out, recognise, and believe in, the ‘inner’ self in Reality TV, while the highly performative and mediated context of the form makes this quest more paradoxical than ever. In fact, while programmes such as Big Brother and Pop Idol may display significantly different discourses on, or explanations of fame, this ideology of selfhood permeates much of Reality TV. While in Big Brother there is much self-reflexive and dizzying discussion of ‘who is being their real selves? Who is simply playing up for the camera?’, we are asked to judge the contestants (and they are asked to judge each other), precisely by this criteria of ‘authenticity’. We only need note that – from Big Brother, the pop programmes to the celebrity-reality shows – winners are often chosen and applauded because they are seen to have been the most ‘true’ to themselves. Again, despite the self-reflexive and performative context of Reality TV, this suggests highly conservative ideologies of selfhood and individualism. As Dyer reminds us, we have historically valued stars who appear to ‘bear witness to the continuousness of their own selves’, given that ‘sincerity and authenticity are two qualities greatly prized in stars’ (11). While it is not my intention to make assumptions about audience reading strategies here, it is worth noting that existing audience research (Hill, Jones) into Reality TV has emphasised how viewers indeed obtain satisfaction from the search for ‘the real’ in Reality TV, and from actively negotiating the tensions between construction, performance and authenticity. Annette Hill describes how the ‘game’ is ‘to find the “truth” in the spectacle/performance environment’ (337), and as this quote implies, this is far from suggesting that audiences have given up on the idea of ‘the real’ in Reality TV (Hill, Jones). The primary site on which this is played out is the representation of the self – an arena which stardom and celebrity has historically placed centre stage (Dyer, Marshall). As this suggests, then, the two fields have much to discuss.
While I have only touched briefly on the detail of the formats here, this discussion emphasises how Reality TV demands closer consideration in the context of claims suggesting its ‘transformation’ of celebrity. Its position with a longer history of fame, the specificities of particular formats, and the ideological parameters in which they function, all question any simple or homogenous interpretation of its impact on celebrity culture.