Understanding Reality Television

By Burnett, Maija | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Understanding Reality Television


Burnett, Maija, Journal of Film and Video


UNDERSTANDING REALITY TELEVISION Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn, eds. London: Routtedge, 2004, 302 pp.

In a recent issue of Cranta (no. 86), Andrew O'Hagan discusses the relationship between films and personal experience, referencing the particular and complex ways in which people identify with, and engage in, moving images. In an astute comment, O'Hagan writes that "movies and real life share secret things to do with one another... that only the hard-hearted could fail to see" (180). This describes something of the connection that binds viewers to narratives on film and television, and it highlights the mysterious ways in which audiences take meaning from, and interpret, what they see on screen. But what happens when these images not only call out to viewers at the level of narrative, but also make claims about being "real"? In other words, if narrative, fictional worlds connect with viewers' inner lives, how might one characterize the power of unscripted, nonfktion images? Do these images provoke a heightened sense of identification on the part of viewers? Do they also encourage a greater degree of anticipation during the viewing experience? Do unscripted scenarios hold the promise (fulfilled or not) that anything can happen?

One might consider, then, the role of unscripted narratives in the current cultural milieu, which has seen documentary films (Fahrenheit 9/11 [2004], Capturing the Friedmans [2003], Spellbound [2002]) and unscripted reality-television shows (Survivor, American Idol, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) generate enormous fan bases and strong numbers, either at the box office or in the Nielsen ratings. Film studios and television networks have witnessed and responded to this surge in the popularity of unscripted media; cable and network television in particular have attempted to capitalize on this phenomenon. The cable television network Bravo has even produced a five-part documentary called The Reality of Reality-thai is, a metareality show-with segments such as "How Real is the Real?" and "Behind the Scenes." Reality television, which promises to unveil things "as they are," has generated its own reality show (with its own portrayal of "the real").

In this context, unscripted television has become an important site of public debate over the past decade, and this is why the essays collected in Understanding Reality Television, edited by Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn, are so welcome. Focusing on how reality programming creates new challenges for existing analytical approaches in television and cultural studies (16), Holmes and jermyn have assembled a highly readable and even exciting collection that should be of keen interest to students, academics, and critics alike.

The strength of Understanding Reality Television lies in the variety of topics it addresses and the accessibility of its essays. Holmes and Jermyn's introduction both sets the stage for the essays that follow and offers a compelling discussion of its own about several key issues in the critical study of reality television-debates concerning definitions, terminology, cultural value, and the representation of the "everyday." Holmes and Jermyn examine the theoretical space that reality television occupies, from the way in which participants and contestants "talk explicitly about the politics of how they are being 'represented' at the level of the text itself (12), to reality television's "very self-reflexive and self-conscious interplay between different programme forms" (6). They argue that debates about reality television should not be abstracted from their "relationship with a range of existing critical, theoretical and methodological paradigms," and that these debates can provide an opportunity for experimentation and exploration, at the theoretical level (18).

Holmes and Jermyn make a concerted effort to incorporate essays that cover a range of areas, addressing reality television's history and reception, issues of class, gender, race, and community, as well as questions concerning celebrity and temporality. …

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