Screen jab: the reality of misery

I’m not a huge fan of reality TV. It is occasionally interesting in a curiosity sense and its forerunner, the docusoap, offered enlightening glimpses into other worlds and other peoples’ lives. But mostly reality TV seems to me about serving people up as entertainment and, increasingly over the last decade that has been about pushing things to the very limits of acceptability in the name of entertainment.

Big Brother pioneered this, featuring disabled or unstable contestants who were either on display for their freakishness or otherness, or should have been taken care of off-screen instead. As cash-strapped TV companies have chased a shrinking advertising market and a viewing demographic that probably prefers to be out clubbing, the boundaries have been tested ever further. You only need to look at the programme titles on the terrestrials’ Freeview channels to see this – “Underage and Pregnant”, “Freaky Eaters”, “Xtreme Teen Drivers” (and that’s just on BBC3). Reality TV is becoming increasingly voyeuristic as it probes into the lives of people who are barely old enough to understand the implications of letting it all hang out in front of the cameras. And then there’s the vulnerable. Susan Boyle’s public meltdown on Britain’s Got Talent identified a very real question about the wisdom of putting certain people in the spotlight. So, it was with a sinking feeling that I read in The Sun earlier today that a TV production company plans to serve up the Chawner family for our amusement.

X Factor viewers and readers of the tabloid press will know who the Chawners are. Emma Chawner has auditioned three times for the X Factor. She is very overweight and can’t sing. It’s also patently obvious that the reason her auditions have been aired three years in a row is precisely because she’s overweight and can’t sing. She has been served up purely for our amusement, in the same way Susan Boyle was (although at least Boyle had the redeeming factor of talent). Emma Chawner and the rest of her family were then splashed all over the tabloids as “the Teletubbies”, the fat family who sat watching TV all day while living off benefits. Entertainment for the reading public, public humiliation for them. It was clear then that the Chawners are a family with massive problems who need a lot of help.

But instead they are going to be once again dished up as on-screen entertainment¬† for the nation. TV producer Paul Stead even admits it: “excellent entertainment”, he is quoted as saying, even while trying to convince us that he’s really just trying to help them, honest. Putting their enforced attempts to diet on the TV is not going to help them, only humiliate them further. Hiring Lorraine Kelly as host in an attempt to give this modern equivalent of a Victorian freak show a respectable veneer should not fool anyone. Just how low does reality TV have to go before someone, somewhere says “Enough!” and draws a line under this hideous genre? The only saving grace I can see here is that it will be broadcast on an obscure channel that, with any luck, hardly anyone will watch.

And who will be around to pick up the pieces when the cameras leave and the Chawners have had their carcasses picked over by the popular press? Answer me that, Paul Stead…

*This article was first published on Screenjabber, where I write a TV blog and DVD reviews.

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