Even though we think Reality TV is a modern-day phenomenon, it's actually been around since the television was invented. But I'm not here to give you a history lesson. So let's focus on the 21st Century craze: Reality TV based on political and social issues.
You don't need a film, TV or media studies degree to spot that the latest of these is Benefits Street. But it was not the first to tiptoe down this dangerous political and social groove. Oh no. The Americans started this noughties craze with shows such as Boot Camp in 2001 where young vulnerable people were tempted by fame to do the US equivalent of a National Service short-course. And for the next few years they tinkered round the edges of social shock-TV before in 2009 breaking a massive taboo by running a series called Teen Mom - the clue is in the title.
Turning to politics, US TV was quick to recognise that the old adage: 'DC is Hollywood for ugly people' meant there was a huge untapped pool of the untalented just waiting to be discovered. So, after what one can only imagine as being five minutes planning down the local pub, in 2004 they ran a kind of X-Factor for aspiring politicians called American Candidate - the less said about this the better.
Back here in Blighty it took us while to catch up and it wasn't until 2010 when we got our own reality documentary show starring a group of established politicos - The Tower Block of Commons where four MPs went to live on, yes, benefits. We had, however, tested out the benefits theme in 2009 with a show called How the Other Half Live, where 'poor' people when to live with 'rich' people and the 'rich' people could donate their entire week's Waitrose shopping to them. (OK, that's not true!). But see, there's a pattern emerging here: poverty as entertainment. Or as some people have called it: Poverty Porn.
Roll on a remarkable short time to 2014 and we have Benefits Street. Nothing subtle here. Basically we get to watch people living in a street where most are on benefits. Call me old-fashioned but there is something distasteful about this. I accept that Reality TV usually cuts close to the bone. But I stopped watching things like Pop Idol and X-Factor when it became clear a few years back that, in many cases, we were being invited to laugh at - not with - vulnerable, deluded people, some of whom were clearing suffering mental health issues. I don't know about you but I don't want to be part of that kind of entertainment.
Benefits Street is more subtle. There are always going to be people who live on the fringe of society; people who can't get or keep a job; people who have complex problems and will live on benefits for the majority of their lives. No government can change that. And that's why, for me, it leaves a bad taste. Poverty is not entertainment. It's not showbiz and it's not funny. It's not something you should be able to watch other people struggling through. It's not I'm a Benefits Recipient Get Me Out Of Here. When you watch Benefits Street you're watching what's being fed to you. You're not being educated, however much you tell yourself you are. You don't really know or understand what it's like to live on benefits. You're just a voyeur, seeing an edited version of someone else's generally sad and generally very long-term existence - one you can switch on and off whenever you fancy it.
My major problem here is that I'm just not sure where Benefits Street is leading us. Yes, I can see that sadly there is an appetite for shock-TV, after all we can 'watch' people having sex in a box; see people being cut, gravely injured, from wrecked cars; watch young people showing intimate parts of their bodies to a TV-doctor, and my personal bete noir 'Children's Emergency Rescue' where we can watch incredibly sick children and babies being 'saved' for our entertainment. But where will the search for socially and politically specific Reality TV take us next?
Thankfully, Reality TV might well have jumped the shark so hopefully we won't have to find out where we might go next. According to an article in the Guardian, Benefits Street producers are struggling to find a location to film a new idea: Immigration Street. Yes, seriously, they thought it would be a good idea to find a street, presumably in a suitably deprived inner city area, which was mostly made up of residents from abroad. They're also looking for a location to film the next series of Benefits Street.
I really hope that they can't find a location for either of these new shows. After all, what they're doing is making money out of other people's unfortunate lives; turning the suffering of others into cold, hard cash; parachuting into an area, slapping every person in it onto a tabloid front page, and then disappearing again. So next time you're tempted to watch vulnerable people in a social or political Reality TV show, just ask yourself what that says about you.Suggest a correction