Daytime TV’s Unreality Problem

Why do TV game shows and documentaries insist on pretending that film crews don’t exist?

Here’s another of those things that, in the grand scheme of life’s great horrors, is not particularly important but which nevertheless irritates me every time I encounter it – which is far too often, frankly, but there you go. Am I the only person out there who is driven to a fury – albeit a fairly mild fury, but still – by the continual fakery of TV shows that are based around the presenters meeting members of the public? I don’t quite know what category we put these shows in – they are a mix of game shows, cookery programmes and whatever the hell those series where old shit is repaired or – ahem – ‘upcycled’ (another bugbear of mine, but one thing at a time) are. But they all involve these scenes where presenters or contestants apparently turn up at a car boot sale, a restaurant kitchen, an antique shop or some other place and we are supposed to believe that this is all spontaneous and unrehearsed.

Yes, I know that TV involves us suspending our disbelief in different ways but this always feels especially galling. Not only are cameras (and sound recordists and producers and God knows who else) clearly there with the on-camera ‘talent’ but often they are there before them, behind the counter with the seller who we are somehow meant to believe is not only meeting this person for the very first time but is often surprised to see them. At no point does anyone look at the camera and ask “what the fuck is this about?”, which you might think would be a reasonable response to a whole film crew suddenly rocking up to you as you drag an old chest of drawers out of your car at the local tip.

Even worse are those cookery shows where the presenter, during another globe-trotting adventure, will meet a family of cooks from some rural foreign clime and spend time with them looking at their recipe secrets, proclaiming how welcome they made him feel. Well, of course they did – the whole thing had been arranged long in advance by producers. I suspect that if you or I rocked up to their home or place of work and demanded to be taught how to make some exotic yet humble local delicacy, we might be treated with rather less politeness – and rightly so. Again, are we supposed to forget the camera crew who are also getting in the way? Keith Floyd, bless his drunken heart, at least acknowledged his cameraman and made him a part of the show – others could take notes from this and stop treating the viewers as children who believe that TV programmes are some magical and spontaneous creation.

You can – and probably will – argue that this is all part of the illusion of TV, a sleight of hand that we all know about but buy into for the sake of entertainment. No one believes that the magic is real, we just pretend to in order to enhance the narrative. I understand that but there are ways and means of doing that while still acknowledging what we all know – would these shows be any less entertaining if the members of the public were not made to react with exaggerated surprise when some TV presenter rushes up to them in a car park but instead were there waiting after being selected by researchers in advance? Would Bargain Hunt be less exciting for viewers if the contestants wore body cameras and we followed their contrived rummaging through car boot sales without accompanying production crews?

Of course, the other curse of the antique game show is the unconvincing haggling, where shop owners will drop the price by fifty per cent at the drop of a hat. Again, try that yourself and see how far it gets you – especially if you tell the shopkeeper that you want it cheaper in order to resell it for a profit. I imagine these shows are the bane of antique shop owners’ lives, encouraging everyone to expect prices to be slashed on demand (they also rather show up antique ‘experts’ as knowing little more than the rest of us, given how infrequently a purchase that they have picked out actually makes any sort of profit).

Somehow, this is all more annoying than the blatant fakery and rehearsed action of the reality TV show – everything from The Osbournes to Made in Chelsea and Jersey Shore, where the whole thing is a semi-scripted and contrived work of fiction passed off as authentic. We know that these shows are no more genuine than Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project – though just as many people believed those films to be 100% real, so many of the viewers of reality TV think that it is showing actual reality. You can, at least, watch those shows as a work of fiction – why you’d want to is another thing, but the option is there. The blurring of reality and fiction in the daytime game and lifestyle shows somehow seems more insidious because these are shows without any narrative – they don’t work as fiction, whereas an ongoing series with continuing characters does.

Yes, this is all very insignificant generally. But it feels like an example of how broadcasters try to pull the wool over our eyes, rewriting reality for the sake of entertainment. If they do it on things as relatively insignificant as Money for Nothing and Antiques Road Trip, you have to wonder what else they might be doing it on. How many news programmes are carefully selecting their vox pops, rehearsing interviews and manipulating what we see for the sake of entertainment or to fit in with certain agendas? We see this in everything from the death of the Queen through to the World Cup, where only one opinion is allowed to be heard and any objections are carefully cast aside, where pubs, living rooms and community centres full of choreographed cheering or weeping crowds react on cue and no one mentions anything that will spoil things (yes, the World Cup has brought up a few mentions of human rights and corruption, but not enough to prevent commentators from gushing about how magnificent the stadiums are and brushing aside any difficult questions as a side issue).

We all know how TV works by now – no one is rushing screaming from the room when a train rushes towards the screen anymore. It’d be nice if we could throw aside the strange idea that TV presenters and contestants are somehow not being filmed with permission gained in advance and embraced a reality that would be no less interesting to watch. Little things that don’t seem all that important still erode our trust in what we are seeing. Fix the small stuff and you might be going a way to fixing a wider distrust in the media.


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  1. Backing music on news reports (usually labelled “special reports”) and, to a lesser degree, current affairs programmes and documentaries. Usually the kind of music cue that advises you just how important, shocking, serious or heart-warming the subject being examined is. You know, just in case you’re a total fucking moron.
    It can’t help but moviefy reality, seeing as it’s a direct appeal to the viewer’s emotions.
    That really twists my bollocks.

    Seriously though, you’ve got to stop watching daytime telly. I’m sure it causes dementia.

    1. To be fair, I only see it as a background, passing thing – the mother in law has the TV on all day and so you tend to absorb it by osmosis.

      You’re right about background music. News does not need a backing track.

  2. Okay, I’m not the only this deeply bothers! 🙂
    Equally bad are shows like ‘Ice Pilots’. If they have as many near-‘disasters’ as depicted, the business would have folded long ago.
    Equally insulting are the auto-body ones, where they assemble a concorse-worthy car in what’s suggested is 3-4 days.

  3. For me the worse of shows with the pretend camera crew, involved the presenter (a “survival expert”) given five minutes head start and avoid capture by the special forces of whichever country it was filming in. In one episode, the export treks off through some like grass and then carefully retraces his steps backwards to lay a false trail. It was obvious to the viewers the camera crew had trampled down a load of grass along side his real escape route. Maybe the special forces were told to ignore that.

    1. This!
      We had one (Canada) called ‘Mantracker’. Same deal: “Hey, I’ll hide behind this bush. he’ll never see me!”…possibly, except for the crew filming him. The mind boggles.

  4. The naive and incredulous are manipulated by TV execs about supposed “fly on the wall” documentaries when they are about as realistic as The Wizard of Oz (by which I mean participants and viewers), and the bloated, bombastic, overblown and over-produced presentation of news programmes make them unwatchable nowadays, with the hammy Tom Bradby the worst offender of many. The brilliant satirical comedy “The Day Today” eerily predicted such forebodings in the 90’s; if anything, it has turned out more excessive then they warned.

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