Thursday, 14 June 2007

TV's Little White Lies

There's been a lot of chat about 'honesty' in UK TV recently after the scandal involving certain Participation TV players, some of whom to be frank were conning people out of money in a manner reminiscent of street con-men doing the three card trick. I definitely got some dirty looks when I was involved with gambling on TV, but at least with that every pound you gave us, was a pound that was genuinely placed as a bet, with the chance of a return advertised (the odds).

But today I want to talk about a slightly different kind of honesty, the little white lies that Producers tell via voice overs and edits in Factual TV. The little white lies used to tell a story clearly, to add drama, to make a show exciting to watch. Its the kind of fuzzy little lies that any Producer or researcher involved in factual or reality will have done a thousand times.

Last night I watched the finals of the UK's latest series of The Apprentice. What struck me throughout the show we had a constant voice over mentions along the lines of 'it's the 12th week',
'at the end of this week Sir Alan makes his choice', 'the final week', tonight they present', 'tomorrow Sir Alan chooses'.

That's perfectly normal on TV, I get that if you start quoting time-lines via the shooting schedule you'll just confuse the viewer. But in this case it came across as ridiculous, an untruthful, I was being lied to.

Unlike may other shows, this one was different - it's been on the front pages of The Sun and The Mirror, it's been discussed in The Independent and The Guardian. If you're in the UK and have any kind of awareness of the media not only do you know about Katie, the married man and naked countryside romps, you also know the well discussed fact that Sir Alan in fact had the 2 finalists on his employ for 6 months before he made his choice.

It makes The Apprentice look ridiculous, and eats away at the trust an audience has for what TV tells us is 'real'. Manipulate away on Big Brother, we all know that happens and there is no real pretence. But don't tell me on TV that I'm looking at the colour blue when I know from my morning paper, my web news feeds that what I'm seeing is the colour red.

Just as the internet is helping hold politicians to account, making Corporate giants acts a little more truthfully, isn't it time the 'Reality' Production industry took a look at how it edits, plans it's narratives and writes its voice overs.

This isn't the easy option, it might mean a lot more work. It might even mean that its much, much harder to make that impact that a hot show needs.

However, if the downside is loosing your audience, or more accurately never gaining that younger audience that is used to truth and challenging corporate facts and fingers, well doesn't that make it worth at least stopping and thinking about those little white lies we tell without thinking.


bluejamie said...

While I agree with the morality of what you're saying, I'm afraid I don't agree with the effect. It's not a coincidence that biggest reality shows (Big Brother, The Apprentice, X Factor) are the most manipulative - it's what sells.

I think people like being played with. It makes them a participant rather than merely an observer.

Having a reality show edited down in order to give the audience two-dimensional characters instead of rounded people (Look kids, here's the bitch! here's the shy underdog!) isn't alienating the audience - it's attracting them.

'Britain's Got Talent' didn't even pretend that the interviews weren't scripted. With the kids, you could see them quoting memorised phrases. People don't care - they actively enjoy it.

Reality TV isn't going to lose it's audience through manipulation. It will lose its audience through repetition. As long as it can keep finding new formats - and new ways to make people humiliate themselves and make people at home feel superior - it will stay part of the mainstream.

fat butcher said...

I agree with Bluejamie; it's true, we all just love a good story.

Does it really diminish the Apprentice experience to discover an alternate 'truth' via the newspapers? Don't news media manipulate facts too?

Or is it part of what we enjoy about a reality show - being given one version of events, and peeling back the layers of gloss in the press? It seems as long as someone is being torn apart in public, we'll happily gnaw at the scraps no matter the medium or the level of authenticity proclaimed.

Vladski said...

I was actually trying to make a slightly different point.

I've acknowledged that upfront transparent manipulation is obviously part of the success of shows such as Big Brother.

But I'm not so much talking about manipulation, but more that laissez-fair attitude of ignoring public domain information and news. That devalues shows that sell them selves as factual, rather than entertainment shows.

Ultimately though, this is leading to a lack of trust between the audience and TV in general. I'm scared we are going down the route where one often doesn't believe newspapers as their aim seems to be interesting copy over truthful reporting.

bluejamie said...

But what I meant was that the knowledge that we are being manipulated doesn't seem to have had a corresponding effect on people's trust in the medium... it seems people are quite willing to 'go along for the ride'. So that despite later discoveries that e.g. the apprentice was different from how it appears, it doesn't dent their enjoyment of the show, nor does it devalue their experience while watching it. So I don't think there is an erosion of trust. The erosion is more one of effort. People are more and more satisfied with being told what to think, and seem to care less and less what the truth is.

Yes, people are being manipulated more. But what's worrying is, that's coming from people themselves. They don't want stark reality. They want it 'teevee'd'.

There's no onus on tv program makers to find a way to 'win back the trust'.

The onus is on newsmakers to get the importance of impartial reporting across. And the newsmakers aren't impartial.

Vladski said...

Interesting bluejamie.

I don't necessarily disagree with you, however, I think its a matter of emphasis.

People do want things 'TV'eed' and I've spent my whole career doing that, so no argument.

But just as TV is being 'democratised' but all pervasive media, social networks, UGC etc, then TV also needs to start looking at itself, much as say the Guardian has responded to new media.

A friend of mine, James DuBern who runs UK programming at Al Gore's Current TV has just been published in Broadcast Magazine discussing exactly about the perceived erosion of trust, so I do think its a genuine worry in the industry.