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Game On: Reality TV Plays and Players


Forget Second Life, reality TV is the hot new video game genre of our time.

Like video games, the shows generally thrive on conflict, with little regard for how you get to the point of trading blows. The themes of the shows even sound like video game pitches. Some are quest-based (Made) or competition-based (The Amazing Race), others are based on simply throwing a group of people together in a room and watching the fur fly. Commentators have argued about whether such programming might be unhealthy for our society, but a recent incident in England provides a glimpse of what happens when “reality” collides with reality.

You’ve probably heard of the show Big Brother, which began in the Netherlands in 1999 and has since been exported all over the world. In the U.S., Big Brother isn’t all that popular, but in the U.K., it’s a really big deal; an edition of Big Brother appears on-air every night and also has off-shoot programs that cover the events of the house the players, er, “characters” live in. This may have something to do with Britain’s eternal love of fluke celebrities, such as bankrobber Ronnie Biggs, rocker/heroin addict Pete Doherty, and model/Beckham-boinker Rebecca Loos.

And there’s a spin-off called Celebrity Big Brother, although that word ought to appear like this: “Celebrity*” (*may be only marginally well-known).

During the month of January, the fifth edition of Celebrity Big Brother was televised in the U.K. The “celebrities” included film director Ken Russell, actor Dirk Benedict (of A-Team fame), Jermaine Jackson (brother to Michael and Janet), model Danielle Lloyd, Jo O’Meara (formerly of the pop group S Club 7), Jade Goody (who gained her fame by appearing on an earlier edition of Big Brother), Jade’s boyfriend Jack Tweed, and Jade’s mum Jackiey Budden. But one lesser-known contestant turned out to become the focus of public attention: Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.

During the competition, 14 people are locked up in a house with no contact with the outside world, although they are constantly observed by cameras. One by one, contestants either leave or are kicked out by a vote of the viewing audience. The winner is the one left standing. Misbehavior occurs. People bicker and fight. It’s natural there would be a certain amount of this whenever any group of people are confined together. But it’s safe to assume there’s a certain amount of acting out for the cameras – viewer and contestants, who volunteer, have become conditioned to behave in typical reality show fashion. They know the rules. On some reality shows, the “characters” seem to have all the free will of a persona from The Sims.

On this edition of CBB, the jabs had a distinct racial tone (demonstrated by this compilation of clips). Jackiey seemed incapable of pronouncing Shilpa’s name, almost deliberately so. Jo suggested that Indian people are thin because they don’t cook food properly. Jade called Shilpa “poppadom,” after the Indian flatbread. Danielle called her a “dog.”

Class also played a role. Shilpa appears to be of the Brahmin caste, very educated and graceful. In comparison, Jade and her mother are lower class Brits. Shilpa spoke of her many servants, which seemed to strike her housemates as snooty; they seemed unaware that having servants in India is incredibly common.

By mid-January the whole situation with Shilpa had become explosive. Reality TV – a mutant blend of fact and fiction – had met political reality. Britain went into an uproar. Ofcom, the broadcasting regulatory body that is the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, received more than 40,000 complaints from viewers about the alleged racist bullying of Shilpa. Britain’s Finance Minister Gordon Brown was in India as the situation developed and was drawn into commenting on the issue. Riots broke out in India. The head of Ofcom issued a statement. Tony Blair was asked to comment.

The conclusion to this tense situation is that Shilpa Shetty won the contest, garnering 63% of the votes, beating out the other remaining contestant, Jermaine Jackson.

As the accused tormentors came out of the house, they were shocked to discover how they had looked.

On being shown the footage of the race row making headline news across the world, Jo [O'Meara] exclaimed: “Oh my God!” She said, “It does look very bad,” but insisted, “I’m not a racist person at all. My cousin is married to an Indian, and my cousins are half-Indians.”

This is a fine position to be in: you go on a nice little reality show, you act like you’re supposed to – throw in a little fireworks – and you emerge to find out you’re accused of being a racist who has triggered an international scandal that has pulled in even the Prime Minister. There’s a career move for you. It’s fine to be an actor portraying a bigot on TV, but on a reality show, you’re purportedly “being yourself.” Far better to be a character than be caught lacking it.

The producers of these programs always defend their tactics. They’re shining a light on human behavior; they’re offering healing by showing our weaknesses; they are just offering entertainment. Of course, the most laughable thing about the name “reality television” is the word reality. All media manipulates life; even very serious documentary filmmakers shoot things a certain way and edit footage for a particular purpose. Reality shows are no different; they’re cast very carefully, the environment is highly artificial, and the editing is quite calculated. The end results are not necessarily fake, but they are nudged into place.

A “traditional” video game like Grand Theft Auto is based on the premise that it might be kind of fun to live for a day without consequences: steal cars, sleep with hookers, shoot up the town, and then walk away from it all – no harm, no foul. Some reality shows seem to have the same taste for rock ‘em, sock ‘em action, but with the implication – from the audience and, to some extent, the contestants – that you’re watching something real. The “villains” of Celebrity Big Brother might have preferred for their personal privacy that CGI – the magic technology that makes animated characters appear life-life – was used instead.

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