Domestic Reality TV

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

I have finally found a reality program that I can watch without cringing with embarrassment for the participants and/or becoming enraged at the producers. Not surprisingly, it’s trailing in the ratings and on the brink of cancellation. Although the title is not immediately endearing, ABC’s version of the hit British series Wife Swap hovers somewhere between the infotainment intent and documentary-like structures of the original and the highly constructed shock-and-spectacle of American reality-tv. In part, this is due to the producers’ conflicting desires both to raise social awareness and to provide the high drama expected by American audiences. But the show’s domestic setting and its concentration on female characters is at times also in conflict with reality-tv’s ideological traditions, so well delineated recently on this site by L.S. Kim. Wife Swap reveals the difficulties involved in sustaining a more typically relationship-based “feminine tv” reality show in an American market and, more importantly, the disruptive power of even the most cursory attention to the actual material conditions and social complexities of women’s lives.

The British series Wife Swap (2003- ) has been enormously popular and won several prestigious awards. Its premise is simple: one wife changes places with the wife of another family for two weeks. During the first week, she follows their “rules” and during the second, they “must obey” her requested changes to their household. The producers’ stated aim is not one of providing exciting competition or reward (the participants are not paid) but of personal enlightenment: “a couple’s opportunity to re-discover why they love each other and decided to marry in the first place” (ABC on Wifeswap). I recently had the opportunity to view the British and American cuts of the same episode of the show and they were markedly different: the British version was much longer and much less sensationalized, with more of a focus on the educational aspects of the show and what the couples learn from their experiences (there was considerable critique of the U.S. way of life from one of the couples, which was cut in the American version).

While the British version reflected the program’s stated goals, the American version was much more uneven. The promos for the American version (which are shown not only before the show as a whole but continually before every commercial break) emphasize the dramatic conflict and contrast between the two couples, who are chosen for the extreme differences in lifestyle (i.e. the working class biker family vs. the middle class environmentalists). While the promos promise continual bitter confrontation and acrimony, the bulk of the program reflects the more feminine values of reconciliation, emotional connection, and mutual understanding. And feedback from participants (widely reported on-line and in the press) suggests there would be even more emphasis on relationship-building if the wives had final cut. Indeed, one participant recently revealed that producers kept encouraging her to be more critical of her new family in order to heighten conflict (which she refused), and that the illuminating 3-hour conversation she had with her temporary spouse to help work through their differences ended up on the cutting room floor.

This tension between the interests of the program’s participants and the commercial expectations of ABC — which encourage the British producers to replicate the arguably masculine, conflict-based aesthetics of American reality — has resulted in confusion and anger among many reality fans. My examination of three different websites for the show suggests that part of the pleasure for many reality tv fans is their expectation of the conflict of opposites that the show promises; their enjoyment also seems to hinge on their desire to judge and feel superior to the people on the screen. The learning and reconciliation aims of the participants undercuts that pleasure, as one self-aware fan on suggested: “That was a Happy-Go-Lucky episode where people acknowledge and recognize the need for change. I still can’t get used to these happy endings and I don’t want to get used to them. I want hateful, rule resistant people that I can snark on forever and ever. When the couples met they were all so good natured and friendly, it hurts me to like both families. It makes me feel like I’ve failed.”

Some fans welcome the changes, however. The domestic realities of these people’s lives makes it difficult for viewers to divorce the participants’ attitudes from their material reality, which changes the nature of the “conflict” discussions from a typical clash of personalities to more substantial discussions of social difference. Wife Swap reveals the specificity of people’s lives through attention to the mundane, rather than sensational, details that accompany the “wifely” role: cleaning, cooking, child care, spousal negotiations, religious practices, professional responsibilities. The program also foregrounds the variety and complexity of class, race, religion, region and, of course, gender, difference in a way that significantly departs from most reality-tv by eschewing the usual artificial setting of social “equality,” equal opportunity, and middle class norms and values. As a result, the contrasts in social class are revealed since each person’s home and routine is put on display.

Houses are judged by the wives according to both working — and middle-class standards, and the program, stunningly, does not promote one standard over the other. Indeed, one of the program’s most popular and heroic wives, Cristina (a Christian Latina liberal rocker), rejects the dominant notion of the necessity for a “neat and orderly” home by asserting that “we value human relationships above a spotless house.”

Particular objects within each person’s home become symbolically central and take on a rare historical and social dimension. When a black mom, Shelley, objects (politely) to a Mammy cookie jar in her new home, one teenage daughter bursts out, “I am so sick of being called racist just because I’m from Mississippi!” while the other proudly displays the “Mammy” doll both girls have slept with since they were children. In this case, the materiality of the cookie jar and the doll form the core of the show’s conflict, one which results in Shelley (again, a very popular figure with viewers) patiently explaining to her new daughters why she finds the figure of the Mammy offensive. Because Shelley, the heroine here, is both aware that race matters and is permitted to explain her position at length, she brings attention to racial difference and undercuts the ideology of racial equity. The resulting on-line discussion of the episode focused on the cultural and historical meanings of racialized objects, with posters bringing up Marlon Riggs’ film Ethnic Notions as a helpful resource. In this case, difference became a subject of thoughtful discussion rather than serving merely as a source of conflict and eventual ridicule.

The most moving example of the way in which Wife Swap both addresses difference and provides examples of reconciliation is in the experience of a woman from a traditional Christian family to Christina’s alternative rocker family. Although also Christians, the rocker children have piercings and wear Goth clothing. Christian mom Wendy is initially very critical of the family, calling them “devil worshippers,” and she eventually breaks down crying, admitting her fear of difference: “It’s culture shock to me. It’s just scary to me. And I know you’re godly, wonderful people, it’s the appearance that scares me to death. I’m sorry I feel this way but it’s very disturbing to me. I’m just totally out on my own here.” By the end of the episode, Wendy has moved beyond external appearances, even allowing the children to dress her up as a Goth chick and singing with them. Her transformation–which is internal more than anything, and in stark contrast to most “Swan-like” transformations — suggests the way in which the program’s attention to difference helps to break down rather than reinforce barriers or hierarchies between people. As a result of the program, Wendy is more able to build a strong relationship with her own daughter. Labels like “redneck,” and “white trash” get unpacked and examined through actual people’s lives, and descriptions like “Christian” are shown to have widely varying meanings.

If anyone is a villain on Wife Swap, it is the inflexible, the intolerant, and the irrational, who most often (surprise!) are personified by the rigid husband of a patriarchal family. The fact that female outsiders are put in charge of traditional male households is remarkable in itself, one of the few instances where women have unrecuperated authority on a television program, reality or otherwise. This moment of take-over is one of the chief pleasures of the program for its fans, whose desire for traditional reality-tv showdowns gets conflated in these instances with those feminist viewers who want to see these women turn patriarchy on its head. These reversals are often also sweetened by race and class critiques: a black women has the opportunity to interrogate and browbeat a white Southern male about his shoddy treatment of his wife until he breaks down and cries; a working-class single mom (gently) takes a wealthy husband to task for his neglect of his children and his need for total control of his environment. Although the changes these women make may be temporary, their critiques offer moments of genuine enlightenment that, I hope, will outlast Wife Swap‘s inevitable cancellation.

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Funny Politics

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

It is commonplace to observe that television, like everything else, is increasingly global these days. What is happening on the other side of the world is shown and commented upon instantaneously in news programming. There is also a considerable international trade in programmes as well as channels with a world-wide reach and co-productions between countries. The USA, of course, stands at the apex of global television in addition to cinema and much else besides. We are all tutored to some degree in US issues and events seen from an American perspective in addition to its hegemonic entertainment culture. Yet, there is still a great deal of US material that just does not sell abroad. Political satire on television is such an example, although The Simpsons may be, to an extent, a great exception to the general rule. This preamble allows me to move from the American context of Flow to mention an important British television programme that only Britons see, Bremner, Bird and Fortune.

Bremner, Bird and Fortune is the latest manifestation of a great tradition in British television going back to the early sixties with the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was (TW3), political satire. TW3 castigated the Conservative government of the day in comic sketches, parodied news items and cabaret-style routines. It was taken off the air a few months before the 1964 general election so as not to influence the result. Labour won anyway. There were only two TV channels at the time so TW3 had access to a huge audience. This legendary programme may well have contributed to the climate of opinion that voted out the Tories after thirteen years in office. In the 1980s, the puppet caricatures show, ITV’s Spitting Image, poured scorn on Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Labour did not come off lightly either and the Liberal leader, David Steel, amongst other leading politicians and celebrity personalities, was mocked mercilessly. At its height, Spitting Image commanded an audience of over ten million. Channel Four’s Bremner, Bird and Fortune attracts around two million viewers, which in the present multi-channel environment is actually quite good for such a programme.

It would be surprising if Prime Minister Tony Blair likes it, yet Bremner, Bird and Fortune has met with no political censorship, unlike TW3 forty years ago. The show has had trouble over copyright, however, particularly regarding new lyrics for old songs, though Tom Lehrer has been particularly generous in allowing Rory Bremner and his pals to rewrite his work (‘the Sunnis hate the Shias’, etc.). There is enough American material, especially with such obvious targets as George Bush, US economic and military imperialism, voracious corporations and oil-driven policy. When the company that makes Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Vera, put together a compilation of the American material a couple of years back, there were no takers in the USA.

John Bird and John Fortune performed in TW3 all those years ago. When they teamed up with young impressionist Bremner in the late eighties a direct connection was made between the old and the new in British television satire. Bird and Fortune write and perform an interview sketch, as two typically British ruling-class buffoons, for every episode (these are available on disc). The interview is with a character called George Parr, who is played by Bird, on occasion, as a British army general; and, when Fortune plays Parr and Bird takes his turn to do the interviewing, he is usually a governmental or corporate official. Parr gives convoluted and contradictory accounts of policy and practicalities. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bird as General Parr admitted that the British were not well equipped for encountering the enemy since its tanks, for instance, were designed for combat with the Russians in Northern Europe. They didn’t work so well in the sands of the Middle East. Also, British army boots tend to melt in hot climes. In the most recent series (October 2004), Fortune, playing Parr as a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, explains how relaxing legal restrictions on gambling for American and South African operators of casinos will bring about cultural renewal and urban regeneration in British towns and cities. Bird and Fortune have also played civil servants in the War Office when Britain invaded and occupied Iraq during the 1920s. Under the direction of Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary at the time, Britain used mustard gas against ‘insurgents’ and set up a constitutional monarchy, which was overthrown in the 1950s when the British were finally kicked out. Shortly afterwards, the CIA hired a youthful thug, one Saddam Hussein, to assassinate the new Iraqi Prime Minister. He failed but was looked after in order to return to the fray later on. Saddam’s subsequent association as friend and then foe with the USA (and, indeed, Britain) is also traced in Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Parallels between the British and the American imperial adventures in Iraq are also drawn with chilling humour and to dispel historical amnesia, a striking feature of both American and British politics. Furthermore, all the questions about weapons of mass destruction, regime change, lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq, the ignorance of another culture and effect of Americanism on an Islamic nation, torture and the rest of it are treated with comedy and — as is the case with the best satire — deep seriousness.

The producer and co-writer of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Geoff Atkinson, pointed out to me recently that the comedic impulse comes first; moreover, he believes it must do so. If it’s not funny it simply doesn’t work. Comedy is not to be reduced to a sweetener for otherwise side-lined political information. Bremner’s early work was not especially political at all. He was a remarkably talented impressionist, normally making fun of TV personalities, such as the sports presenter, Des Lynham. Atkinson himself started out writing for The Two Ronnies, which was hardly a satire show. But, as politics became more and more bizarre, the temptation to laugh at it, perhaps in order to avoid crying about it, was to become unavoidably compelling for them.

As well as his portrayal of the creepy fantasist Tony Blair, Bremner does a brilliant impression of George Dubya Bush. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a special edition of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, entitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place. Shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the official though not actual cessation of hostilities, another special was put out in May 2003, Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place. These editions of the programme represented a significant cultural intervention in the public sphere where issues concerning the reasons for invading Iraq and its consequences were hotly debated; and still are nearly two years later. There was always greater scepticism in Britain than in the USA about the linking of Al Qaeda to the Ba’athist regime, disquiet at belligerent strategy in the Middle East and horror at the British government’s craven support for US policy. Blair’s own reputation will never recover from this historical error in his own country. In Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place, Rory Bremner as himself remarks, ‘The war may be over but the battle for hearts and minds is harder. Let’s face it, it’s a bit difficult to win Iraqi hearts and minds when you leave their hearts in one place and their minds in another’. Then Bush (Bremner) speaks on a television programme beamed into a devastated Iraq, Towards Freedom. He begins, ‘My fellow Iraqis…’ Dubya’s talking head is accompanied on screen by: lists of sponsors (Haliburton, Bechtel, etc); news reports such as George Clooney being signed up to play Saddam Hussein in a forthcoming movie; and a count of ‘Oil Barrels This Hour’. He praises Iraq as, in Condoleezza Rice’s words, ‘the cradle of civilization’ and corrects his praise of the ‘many’ to ‘some historical artefacts’. Apparently, there is no intention to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves ‘any more than is strictly necessary under the normal rules of international trade and shareholder value’. As a Coca-Cola sign revolves beside his head, the President of the United States reassures the Iraqi people: ‘Be assured of one thing. We will not walk away from your country, as others have done before. We will not stay in your country, as others have done before. We will do both…’

The audience figures shot up for these specials on Iraq, reflecting a thirst for the expression of more critical perspectives on the state of the world than those routinely purveyed on mainstream television. Whether right or wrong, the well-founded views articulated by Bremner, Bird and Fortune are usually present only in marginal publications addressing relatively small and strongly left-wing constituencies; and are hardly ever present on television where a much wider audience can be addressed. Nowadays, the place where they are most likely to crop up on television is in satirical comedy shows. Perhaps that is because comedy is not supposed to be serious and, therefore, doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Historically, license has been given to the court jester to say the naughty things for casual and ineffectual entertainment. Bremner, Bird and Fortune is not, however, merely a safety valve. It is extremely funny and politically astute in its carefully researched material. Rory Bremner, the two Johns — Bird and Fortune — and the programme’s producer, Geoff Atkinson, have published a book of their stuff recently, You Are Here – A Dossier. It provides a good idea of how and why Bremner, Bird and Fortune is such a nodal point of the cultural public sphere in Britain.

BBC – Comedy Guide to Bremner, Bird and Fortune

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What Can We Still Learn about Television from Raymond Williams?

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

When I was invited to write this column for Flow, I wondered where to start. So, I turned to Alan O’Connor’s edited collection, Raymond Williams on Television – Selected Writings (1989). Williams died in January 1988. One of his last acts of publishing was to write a preface to O’Connor’s collection. Williams dated his signature to the preface, December 1987. The collection is largely made up of short articles from Williams’s monthly column in The Listener between 1968 and 1972. There are a few later pieces as well. The now defunct Listener was a BBC weekly publication of discussions and occasionally transcripts of what was going on in broadcasting. Its demise might suggest that television has become less the focus of urgent public debate now than it used to be. That’s unfortunate.

Williams wrote surprisingly little about television. The first edition of his book Communications, published in 1962, concentrated on the press. Much of the material was drawn from adult evening classes that Williams taught in the 1950s when video tape was only coming into use in television programme-making. Later, of course, domestic video recorders were a huge boon to education about television. In fact, they made it possible from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, Williams must have made notes when watching the uninterrupted flow of TV before the advent of domestic video recording. His observations became copy for The Listener, some of which also appeared in the third edition of Communications, published in 1976.

The Listener column effectively ended in December 1972. A couple of later pieces from The Listener, dated 1974, are included in O’Connor’s collection, but Williams never did resume his column on a regular basis. What had Williams been up to between suspending his column at the end of 1972 and the few afterthoughts he added in 1974? He went to the USA. While at Stanford in California, Williams began work on Television – Technology and Cultural Form, which was published after he had returned to Cambridge in England. Williams watched a lot of American television in a state of bemusement, especially with regard to the incessant advertising’s surreal interruptions of editorial content, and learnt about cutting edge technological developments in the medium at Stanford’s Department of Communications. In his book of thirty years ago, Williams not only commented on the form and content of television but also its developing technologies, including video-cassette recording, satellite transmission, large screen receivers and cable distribution. The cultural critic had become, to an extent, a political economist of televisual technology.

Williams concluded Television – Technology and Cultural Form prophetically. Permit me to quote the key passage, a passage that I am fond of quoting and have done so before:

Over a wide range from general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian. These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities (p151).

So, thirty years ago, with trepidation, Williams spotted what was likely to happen. Conventional wisdom tells us that the reason television has developed in this way is due to technological advance. It is indeed to do with technology but not only technology. Instantaneous satellite communications, channel proliferation, digitalisation and convergence of television and computing are all important but their deployment is a matter of decision-making, a matter of politics and economic pressure, as Williams always insisted. Profitability, not social use, is the driving force. This has put enormous pressure on the European tradition of public service broadcasting, a tradition that has barely existed at all in the USA. Even the most illustrious organisation of public service broadcasting – the British Broadcasting Corporation – behaves these days like a business in a competitive market. Yet, the public service aspect has not been entirely obliterated. There is still a debate to be had.

How does the situation differ now from thirty years ago when Williams sought to comment on the ordinary output of British television and theorised the development of the medium? Then, television in Britain was governed by public service principles, including commercial television. The Independent Television (ITV) network was established in the 1950s as a federation of regionally based companies, with regional responsibilities, under the supervision of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which became the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with the subsequent advent of commercial radio. The regional franchises were once described as ‘a license to print money’ since the ITV companies had a monopoly over broadcast advertising revenue in their regions and could, therefore, sell time and audiences at exorbitant rates. The Wilson Labour government of the 1960s put a cap on ITV profits. The companies were left swimming in money, which could be lavished on production and high wages for staff, technical and administrative, not only managerial and creative. The so-called ‘golden age’ of British television – the 1960s and into the 1970s – was exceptionally well funded by advertising and license fee revenue. This was when Williams was writing about television.

The Thatcher Conservative government of the 1980s seriously considered the introduction of advertising to the BBC, not uncommon in public service broadcasting elsewhere. The ITV companies successfully protested against such competition that would inevitably force down rates. The competition came anyway, from cable operators and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite service, which really took off with satellite sport, especially live Premiership football, in the 1990s. Channel proliferation, then, and segmented audiences. All of which entailed extra payments by the viewing public, in addition to the BBC-funding license fee and the costs of advertising in the shops. Until then, the viewing public had been getting its television on the cheap. Now, they were paying through the nose for it, though with greater ostensible ‘choice’.

In the meantime, labour conditions in the business had changed dramatically, involving a shift from Fordist to Post-Fordist arrangements. Outsourcing product, de-unionisation, casualisation and career insecurity all grew apace. There were still huge rewards but only for the very few. Some young entrants to the business were working for virtually nothing. Making programmes for BBC4, the ‘intellectual’ digital channel, originally named BBC Knowledge, is a form of philanthropy that is, no doubt, appreciated by its viewing public (normally counted in the tens of thousands).

What does all this mean for the programmes? Here, it is necessary to avoid – or, at least, be sceptical – of two tendencies. First, there is the celebration of cornucopia and choice, which simply repeats the industry’s PR and marketing rhetoric. Second, there is the nostalgic comparison of the present and the past when things were supposedly so much better. There is some justification for the latter, particularly in Britain where the public service and market compact of the 1960s and ‘70s was, indeed, a notably successful way of organising TV and enabling creativity to flourish. Williams, however, complained about it at the time. He and other critics attacked the ‘consensus’ TV that suppressed deeply felt differences. Marketisation may well have contributed to opening up representations of difference. Enthusiasts for the present find plenty to praise, most remarkably in terms of changing social mores, such as openness to sexual differences, an openness that was inconceivable, frankly, when Williams was writing about TV. Multiculturalism has had a significant impact too. Nevertheless, let’s be realistic, ultimately the bottom line rules now more so than ever, in a way that would have stifled great innovations of the past at birth.

As an armchair critic, Williams was fascinated by television’s representation of the world in factual and fiction forms. I believe that for him television was a democratising medium in a fundamental sense, already contributing to what he liked to call ‘the long revolution’. The mobile access in a private space to so much that was hitherto unavailable on a daily basis had to be acknowledged by intellectuals who might otherwise write television off as beneath them. In his Listener column, Williams offered an immanent critique of television that is a critique on the grounds of television itself, registering its successes and identifying its failures, in the hope, against the odds, of making it better.

Links of interest:
1950s British Television Nostalgia
TV Resources – British Shows
TV Museum: Raymond Williams
Pop Cultures: Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams

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