The School Doctor: The Reality of Reality Television?

The School Doctor discusses reality television in their latest post…

Towards the end of my last blog, I suggested that the civilising influence of TV series like the BBC’s Civilisations was easily swamped by the more corrosive influence of reality television. I want to pursue this idea a little further, and to suggest that reality TV, in its more pernicious forms, poses a significant threat to modern education more widely.

I don’t want to be a total curmudgeon about this. One by-product of teachers’ relatively long vacations is the opportunity to switch on ITVBe and then switch off my brain. I have spent many an hour watching the inconsequential yet gripping developments of random ‘Real Housewives’. When Big Brother first launched on British TV, I found myself watching a live-feed of someone sweeping the floor for an hour just because I could. More than once have I watched Gordan Ramsay shouting in the face of a random American restauranteur in the hope that effing and blinding will raise the quality of the cuisine or get the cockroaches out of the cold store. I was one of the first suckers for the X-Factor sob stories, before we all realised that the tragedy that we all experience in our lives does not necessarily qualify us to win a singing competition. I admire the chutzpah of the scheduler who broadcasts the Ellen show, which always finishes with the host’s exhortation for us all to be ‘kind to one another’, just before the Jeremy Kyle Show in which the guests do anything but.

Perhaps my damascene moment with reality TV came when I realised that the Real Housewives franchise only really has one story arc, which has to be followed every episode, with slight variations on the same theme. Each programme begins with the ‘characters’ meeting to go over who said what to – or threw which drink over – whom at the previous week’s party. (These parties often have no point, except to bring together people who dislike one another, in the hope that they’ll throw Pinot Grigio in one another’s faces.) We then get twenty minutes along the lines of ‘they’re so out of order, you should ring them’. Then we get a reunion brunch and – inexplicably – the scheduling of another party, at which the characters yell in each other’s faces because they haven’t really got over the previous party’s injustices. Some weeks all of these people who don’t really like each other decide to go on holiday together, so they can shout at one another with a slightly different backdrop. This is all, of course, totally compelling. It is compelling because TV producers long ago realised that audiences like aggression and conflict – that’s why Simon Cowell is so wealthy. It’s much more fun watching nastiness, hair-pulling and white wine being launched across the room than it is to watch people nodding sagely and saying ‘Yes, I totally agree’.

Which is all very well in the short term, but such short-attention-span-grabbing television just reflects back to us our very worst instincts, legitimising them as acceptable ways to behave. If it’s on TV it must be okay. If it’s how you get on TV and (hopefully) get rich quick, then it must be okay. Many of us will watch these shows and see them for what they are: producers’ ratings fodder with little concern for the welfare of the people being goaded to claw each others’ eyes out, or for those staring at the screen while the eye-clawing goes on. These producers are not our friends; they are not society’s friends; they are get-rich-quick merchants who prey on the insecurities of those who think that they, too, will get rich quick by taking part in a ‘structured’ reality series.

And this is the televisual diet of our pupils. This is what they are told society is like, day-in day-out, and if they need it to be reinforced they can then watch it on a +1 catch-up or an endlessly-available streaming service. Once they have watched one bunch of people shouting at each other, or screwing one another over, they can change channel to another set of ‘stars’ doing exactly the same thing. The setting, location and demographic may change, but the essential premise remains the same: aggression is compelling, therefore aggression sells, so one seemingly acceptable and effective way to progress in life (and become a president, perhaps) is to be aggressive. Then society continues to degrade because the values that are promoted are those that increase television ratings, not those that are good for us – and, especially, good for our young people. I can hear the cries from the sofa now: The Only Way is the Real Kitchen Nightmares Made in Orange County is just harmless fun. Fun, yes. But I wonder just how harmless it really is.

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