With the nomination of Made in Chelsea for an award at this year’s BAFTA TV Awards, it seems that love it or hate it, ‘structured reality television’ is at its peak and has truly taken the nation by storm…
Reality TV is nothing new, and in its various forms it has permeated both British and American culture for years. The millennium revolutionised the scene, with Big Brother exploding onto our screens and ushering in a whole new era of television. The audience weren’t so interested in the professionals anymore, they wanted real people in real situations. It was perhaps one of the first expressions of the new popular culture of voyeurism, and as Big Brother established itself as a regular feature of British television, its ratings soared, with over 8 million viewers tuning in for the opening show of Big Brother 2006. Similar shows also blossomed, whether they be the struggles real life situations such as Shipwrecked or the degradation and regeneration of once household names in shows like I’m A Celebrity. Across the channels, producers tapped into this new and lucrative trend to create a plethora of programmes which brought the ordinary people into the extraordinary and revitalised British television.
However, the trend was not to last, and as the decade came to a close audiences were inevitably going to become a little bored of shows which failed to remain dynamic; the four walls of the Big Brother house eventually became too claustrophobic, with the 2011 series averaging only 900,000 viewers. Cue The Only Way Is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore. Building on the successes of programmes like The Hills and Jersey Shore in America, these programmes cleverly combined the heritage of the soap opera with the love of real life situations to create something with a fresh appeal and far fewer limitations. The awkward moments, outrageous comments and larger-than-life egos have captured the nation, and serve different purposes to entertain all. The styles, language and hotspots of the stars have swept popular culture; Sugar Hut soon become one of the most popular clubs in Essex after the launch of TOWIE. And few can deny the hilarity of comments such as ‘taxi drivers are my favourite breed of people’ by Victoria in Made in Chelsea. Others criticise this trend of ‘structured reality TV’ for corrupting documentary by dumbing down the nation and providing less than virtuous role models for young audiences. It seems that the likes of TOWIE, MIC and Geordie Shore are polarising opinion across the UK, and it is hard to ignore their burgeoning popularity accounted for in the ratings.
Perhaps the best recognition of their success to date is the recent decision by BAFTA to introduce a new category to its awards – ‘reality and constructed documentary.’ This provides a platform for structured reality TV to be awarded in its own right, and whether or not you can count yourself a fan of such shows, their place on our screens has become well established. As to the debate about they are classy or trashy, it remains to be seen as we wait to see how MIC fares in the TV Awards on the 27th of May, when the BAFTA winners are announced.