Picture this – it’s the year 2000, Channel 4 is on your television screen and you’re just about to watch eleven total strangers live together, cut off from the outside world, for two months. Everything they do and say can be watched from the comfort of your home, and their behaviour is to become the hot topic of every work chat, family dinner and online forum discussion. Exciting, right? Perhaps not – for many, it’s difficult to recall the anticipation for reality TV after nearly two decades of petty arguments, collective hatred, and scandal. The Great British public seems to have become desensitised to the novelty of observing others in recent years. Is the UK experiencing reality TV fatigue, and is it time we turn towards a new form of visual entertainment?
ITV’s reboot of Big Brother, the first series after five years, was launched in September this year, receiving boast-worthy viewing figures of 2.6 million, only to decline tremendously after its launch show to a meagre 800,000. This begs the question; why did people lose so much interest after the first episode? It could be that ITV’s nostalgia-centred marketing campaign for the program attracted a nostalgia-centred audience at first, and that those seeking to relive the ‘golden days’ of reality television in the early 2000s simply appreciated the novelty of the new show and decided to move on. It could be that social media has filled the space left by Big Brother in terms of observational-based entertainment – why tune in for an hour when you can consume as many scandals and petty arguments as you like on your phone, from sources such as Instagram and TikTok? Whatever the true reason may be, it’s clear that the television audience of today greatly differs from that of 20 years ago. Audience attitudes in terms of daily habits and attitudes towards reality TV and those who participate in it have transformed.
The conversation surrounding production companies’ duty of care towards their participants has been brought to light
It is these attitudes which arguably have led to the decline of reality television in recent years. Many will remember the vicious treatment directed towards the stars of the Big Brother series in the early 2000s – notably towards Nikki Grahame, a participant in the seventh series, who was hounded by the media over her mental health problems and erratic behaviour as a result of the programme’s enabling. Though Big Brother itself was also criticised for the decision to include a contestant with Grahame’s health history, the brunt of the mocking and humiliation was taken by Grahame herself. This arguably resulted in her succumbing to her mental health problems in 2021, thus making her a victim of the “theatre of cruelty” perpetuated by reality television, as described by the New York Times. The newspaper also argued that reality television is “designed to make us despise” those who take part in it, evidenced by Grahame’s experiences and many like her.
But would what happened to Nikki Grahame in 2006 happen to a contestant in 2023? And does this relate to the downfall of reality TV’s popularity? After the deaths of two stars of ITV’s Love Island in recent years, the conversation surrounding production companies’ duty of care towards their participants has been brought to light, the advancement of social media has allowed those responsible for harassment online in some cases to be prosecuted, and tabloids have been criticised heavily for their vicious coverage of the lives of contestants. Have we, as a society, become kinder than we were in the 2000s? Or has technology simply made it easier for us to be held accountable for our actions? Perhaps Big Brother’s underwhelming return only proves that the public have changed, or that we have advanced in accordance with technology to a point where we truly do feel fatigued by reality TV.
This isn’t to say, however, that reality TV is completely a thing of the past. There is no doubt that there will always be an audience, however small, curiously tuning in to observe the lives of others. But will this audience ever reach the stratospheric heights of ten million viewers reached by Big Brother in 2002? Most likely not, and that’s probably a good thing.
Image: Ged Carroll via Flickr