From Big Brother to The Bachelor, why reality TV is still our true social experiment

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Sadaf Ahsan: In the case of Big Brother, which offers 24/7 live streams of contestants doing everything from brushing their teeth to napping, you never have to unplug

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In the 2006 reality series Solitary , a group of random applicants were placed in solitary confinement for several weeks. They couldn’t see or interact with each other or anyone else; were fed prison-grade meals which they often chose to ration; had to ask for toilet breaks; and were only able to communicate with an artificial intelligence figure named Val in a nod to HAL, the sentient computer and eventual antagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Competitors were designated by numbers, with everything from temperature to lighting controlled by Val. They were subjected to “tests” (mental exercises) and “treatments” (physical punishments). Their performances were tracked and scored (unbeknownst to them) until only one contestant remained: the $50,000 winner. However, the show’s narrative left the chilling impression that Val either kept the winner isolated forever or killed him.

Solitary aired on Fox Reality Channel, a network that only lasted five years and rose to the top of reality TV programming, with series like American Idol, The Incredible Race and Punk. When the channel was discontinued in 2010, so was Solitary.

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From the Solitaire opening theme.
From the Solitaire opening theme. Photo by Fox

It was part of a series of isolation-based reality series – which have only grown in number since – to be presented as a “social experiment”, so elaborate and digestible that it could fulfill the wildest dreams of a television producer and an anthropologist. On the surface, these reality TV series may seem superficial, but deep down they are the truest social experiences we have, frightening in their accessibility: just turn on the TV. In the case of Big Brother, which offers 24/7 live streams of contestants doing everything from brushing their teeth to napping, you never have to unplug; “someone is always watching” as Canadian host Arisa Cox has warned weekly. It is The Truman Show with new characters each season.

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While most of the series produced in Solitary the image did not follow it to all its extremes, they came closer. In The single person, for example, twenty women live together while vying for the affections of a single man, hoping for a marriage proposal within just a few months. Naked and scared features a man and woman who are dropped off in an otherwise deserted wasteland, left to their own devices to find food and shelter, when, yes, totally naked and having never met before.

While it’s long been assumed that reality TV follows a script, it’s less script at work than simple behind-the-scenes tampering. To consider Big Brother , which borrows its name from that of George Orwell One thousand nine hundred and eighty four, and follows 16 house guests as they complete tasks and compete to become the head of the household (and thus safe from elimination). Often, if a physical challenge moves too quickly, producers will add obstacles, like driving rain or falling objects. After being on the air for more than 20 seasons, longtime fans became so familiar with the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that they began to refer to the “production” as her own character, often accusing the producer of longtime Allison Grodner specifically for tampering with front-runner candidates. ‘ trajectories on dedicated online communities

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The most notable example of puppets is found on the Single franchise, where producers will chat with contestants in confessional scenes, asking carefully crafted questions to provoke them into entertaining scuffles or screaming matches. This was best documented in the Lifetime series Unreal , vs created by the old Single producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. It follows the lives of fiction producers working on a Single-reality series called Eternal. The writing on the series strongly implied that the cruel and manipulative efforts of the producers were true to reality and aimed at building incendiary dynamics and narratives.

The Big Brother Canada Stage, with host Arisa Cox.
The Big Brother Canada Stage, with host Arisa Cox. Photo by Global

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, Howard Schultz, CEO of Lighthearted Entertainment, which produces Are you the chosen one? , explained: “I believe that the greatest reality shows create structure – if you have an understanding of human beings and what motivates them and how they will behave under certain conditions – then you just build that structure. and let them go in. But it’s a high-flying act when things happen that you couldn’t have predicted, and I can’t predict all human behavior. The analogy I use is this: if I put a can of gasoline in a house with a box of matches, I don’t know when the fire is going to start, but at some point something will happen if I did my good job.

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It’s certainly kind of a hothouse that pays dividends for viewers, but not so much for the participants, who are isolated from the outside world while the show airs, with no idea they’ve become either a meme, be an object of ridicule. , a totally forgettable presence or, if they’re lucky, a fan favorite. They become, in effect, the characters of a story that unfolds like a classic drama. Except that, for them, there are repercussions in real life.

In season 15 of Big Brother , for example, contestants Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman, and Spencer Clawson all made frequent racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic remarks, leading to several of them losing their jobs at the end of the season. CBS even started airing a disclaimer before each episode. Similar incidents have occurred with the Bachelorette contestants, who have been vilified by viewers for reasons such as fanatical tweets resurfacing.

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Cabin fever has not only led to revelations of bias, but also heightened behaviors and emotions. High school cliques inevitably form and often dominate competitions to the point that Wallflowers will often be left out and bullied. In e Each season of The Bachelor, several contestants claim to have fallen in love, even if they’ve only known their suitor for a few weeks and have “dated” them with countless others. This, of course, results in utter devastation upon elimination.

This plays to the extreme on MTV Are you the chosen one? , in which contestants must find their romantic match (predetermined by production and basic matchmaking) in order to win a collective million dollars. But they become so engrossed in the seething sexual tension inside the house that they always abandon the strategy and instead find themselves in an endless emotional conflict when “friends” swap partners, and are then accused of “treason”. Instead of seeing their experience as a game based on creating arbitrary matches, they are overwhelmed with the idea that their “real match” might be isolated in this house with them.

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Left to their own devices with no connection or outside entertainment, these adults seem to degenerate, but they also play out a microcosm of real life: When complications arise, you either let your emotions get the better of you or you adapt. This means becoming a strategic or physically proficient player, or perfecting your “social game” and figuring out how to manipulate and gossip to your advantage and that of your allies. This is the stuff of reality and reality TV.

When we hear the term reality TV, we assume that we are led to believe that they are real people in real situations. This is not the case, however. In the isolated competition subgenre, people are often as manicured as the situations they find themselves in. What is real, however, are their reactions, their manipulations, their ulterior motives, their politicking.

And yet, this type of reality programming is still dismissed as tasteless. Meanwhile, Netflix black mirror is hailed as a “captivating satire” and “provocative and irreverent”. Maybe it’s because he lives in a fictional setting. Big Brother, however, recreates everything from love to class to identity on a smaller scale and with people whose true downfall we root for, making it both unsettling and impossible to look away from.

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