Described as both 'Big Brother without walls' and 'like glossy commercials for depersonalisation disorder,' the vagazzle surrounding shoe-string-budget reality soaps, The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea, is a social phenomenon in itself. Devoid of all conventional storytelling devices, it seems producers have found a way to create high-ratings TV shows simply by pointing cameras in people's faces.
It's certainly not the acting. In a style first seen in MTV's The Hills, affluent and vaguely familiar-looking 20-somethings, through an endless stream of awkward pauses and over-the-shoulder shots, mutter despondently about hair and who likes who, often with a gravity normally reserved for TV oncologists.
It's not the scripts. The amnesiac story lines often read like they've come straight off an Ouija board - a girl gets a spray tan, a pig urinates on the floor, a couple get briefly lost in the woods. You keep expecting something to happen. It never does. Without any real highs or lows, these shows have a distinctively Prozacced quality - often feeling like they're shot from the perspective of one of the cast having an out-of-body experience.
Although a proven format in the US, previous attempts to bring the reality soap to the UK - with shows such as 2007's Living On The Edge - had been met with a generally lukewarm reception. After all, with the 'stars' so clearly self-conscious and aware they're participating in a 'reality' show, the whole thing becomes self-reflexive and utterly unreal.
What these shows maybe do represent, in some small way, is a shift in our relationship with television. After all, it was only a few years ago the demise of conventional broadcasting seemed inevitable - with teenagers grafted to Youtube, scheduling and advertising slots being rendered meaningless with Sky+, and with more and more people choosing to stream or download shows online. The whole TV industry was reinventing itself around the idea of customising content to the user. And the future was more channels, more choice, and better content delivery.
But in 2009 something strange happened. Audience figures for large TV events actually started to climb. And this was put down to social networks - particularly the growing social phenomenon of people Tweeting while watching TV. Attached to smartphones and laptops all day, we'd become a society of compulsive multi-taskers. And TV was being brought back to the almost pre-80s state of a front room collective experience - rejuvenated by the very thing which had once threatened to destroy it.
This shift's so important to broadcasters, and to the future of TV, that you can expect to see its influence creeping into every corner of the schedule. One way you're likely to notice this is with more and more attempts to involve audience participation. You've probably already noticed news reporters asking viewers to Tweet opinions and questions in every 10 minutes. You can expect to see the 2012 Olympics making every use of Twitter as a public voting platform to rate performances and predict outcomes. Creating a crosstalk gets things trending. And trending is highly influential advertising.
To the same ends, another trend we're likely to see is the creation of programmes which are simply designed to provoke comment. If you've noticed the Daily Mail website starting to feel more like self-satire than usual, it's because this is a tactic they use devastatingly effectively. Whether it's Liz Jones trying to survive 3-star hotel accommodation, or reality stars being refused club entry, the British public are still fascinated with the social class divide. So much so that we're willing to overlook the fact that these stories often convey nothing at all, so long as we can convey an opinion on them. And editors are well aware of this.
Of course, if our attention's divided between our TVs and smartphones, it would make sense if the programmes themselves didn't require too much focus. And maybe took on more of an ambient quality. And if we believed the characters and events we were watching were real, Twitter would become far more than just a voting platform to involve us in events, and would actually go some way towards breaking down the fourth wall completely.
And this brings us back to The Only Way Is Essex.. Sure. A weird, spray-tanned microcosm of Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle. But a show which can attribute its success perhaps more to suiting the way we want to watch TV than necessarily what we want to watch on it. And in that way maybe it's an almost amoebic first stage in a completely new domain of TV making - and maybe it even reflects the way we're starting to see ourselves as knowing participants in a strangely detached 'reality' broadcast.
Or maybe it's just amoebic. And popular.
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