Reality TV is dead

Reality TV is dead

by Robyn Pullen
7 min

Big Brother is back, and let’s be honest… it’s worse than ever. While always controversial, it, alongside other noughties reality TV shows, peaked in their heydays. British national treasures like Gemma Collins, Joey Essex, and Nikki Grahame were born on the small screen, but it wasn’t set to last forever. Viewers dropped, and so did the quality drama, ultimately seeing reality shows become passé. Nowadays the likes of Love Island or Big Brother – shows that were once unmissable parts of our weekly routines – just don’t hit the same. The golden era of reality TV is officially over. But why?

Whilst the argument that we’ve all matured out of enjoying “trash TV” is optimistic, it’s unlikely the cause, considering the quality of content our generation consumes on TikTok on a daily basis. We’re not over watching trash; just over watching trash television

The truth behind why we can’t stand reality TV anymore is a lot more complicated than you’d think. In fact, its sociological study level complicated.

We know you’re wondering, “can you actually use sociological theory to explain why the new season of Big Brother isn’t as good as it used to be?” Yes. Yes we can. But don’t worry, we know you’re used to watching reality TV (or at least omnibus reruns from when it used to be good), so you shouldn’t need a sociology degree to understand why reality TV’s boring.

Big Brother, one of the first reality TV shows to spark our obsession with the “trash telly” genre, set the standard for an onslaught of shows following regular people doing regular things for our entertainment (well, as long as you consider throwing drinks and yelling at each other to be “regular things.”).

Airing on July 18, 2000, and lasting sixty-four days in total, the first season of Big Brother was watched by an average of 4.5 million viewers throughout its duration. The series grew popular enough on a global level that quotes like Gemma Collins’ “I’m claustrophobic, Darren,” Tiffany Pollard’s “old maiden type of shoes,” and even Pooja Misra’s “you’re dying for it,” have been heard by the majority of the English-speaking world.

Whilst Big Brother’s return to TV in 2023 welcomed 2.6 million viewers on its launch show on Sunday 8 October, by Thursday 12 October viewing figures had “plummeted to 880,000 … and [then] only 800,000 tuned in for Friday [13 October’s] eviction with MAFs beating them in the ratings war.” So, compared to Big Brother’s ratings in its heyday, there’s no denying that we’re losing interest. Considering that the show follows the exact same premise though, what’s changed?

There’s one thing that massively altered people’s lives between the early 2000s and today, and you’re probably reading this article on it right now. The iPhone first debuted in 2007, and with it came a revolution in technology. But there’s one main feature of the iPhone that’s the real reason why Big Brother doesn’t work anymore. The camera.

Back in 1979, Michel Foucault coined a metaphor he called the Panopticon Theory, which describes the long term effects of constant surveillance. Foucault theorised if a person were to believe they were being watched constantly by an unknown, unseen ‘Big Brother’ type entity, that would punish them if they acted out, it would permanently change their behaviour (how very Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four). He believed that the person would become so conscious of the watcher always watching them, that even if the watcher looked away, the individual would remain in check.

That might sound complex, but when you translate it into the behaviour of reality TV contestants in 2023, it makes a lot of sense. Back in the 2000s, when reality shows were at their height, people were so much less aware of cameras than we are today. To explain our point, let’s use the most drama-filled reality show to ever air: The Jersey Shore. The Jersey Shore was an American show set on the West coast in Jersey and had the basic premise of following a group of young people on their annual Spring Break.

Audiences couldn’t believe the things the stars of The Jersey Shore would comfortably air on camera: screaming obscenities, falling drunk into hot tubs, and even stripping off without a care in the world (that several million people were watching them do it) were never off the cards.

This is why reality TV will never be the same again. We’re too aware of cameras. Our constant preoccupation with looking in them, feeling them in our peripheral vision, being ever aware of the pervading presence of phones, security cameras, the black dots on our Macs, have made us too conscious of cameras to ever act naturally in front of them.

Back in the 2000s, reality show contestants weren’t familiar with the repercussions of doing things on camera. Nowadays, we’re more than aware of how quickly you can go viral, be cancelled, or attract a ton of Internet trolls by uploading one innocent post. Twenty years ago, regular people getting famous overnight just wasn’t a thing, so reality TV celebrities were confusedly thrust into the spotlight with no PR training or any clue what people even liked them for. In 2023, social media forced us to realise how life-altering five minutes of fame can be.

Sending a group of wide-eyed, underprepared twenty-something-year-olds into the Love Island villa used to end in reality TV gold, but nowadays, everyone is camera-ready, everyone knows their angles, and is hyper-aware of what to say or how they’ll be perceived. That’s why the show feels so scripted; contestants are so conscious of the cameras, even their fights are strategically thought out to sway our opinions a certain way. 

Whilst Foucalt’s theory is definitely part of the cause behind the change in reality TV, another reason is due to society’s altered perception of it. Over the past decade, the public have gone from viewing reality television as “trash TV,” something not to be taken seriously, to being forced to realise the real, harmful, and harrowing effects of what this type of television can do to its cast in the course of only a few months, or even weeks.

Since the deaths of Nikki Graham, Sophie Gradon, Mike Thalassitis, Caroline Flack, and many others who at one point made an appearance on popular reality TV shows, production companies have been held accountable for the treatment of their presenters and cast, before, during, and after the shows. The scenes of hysterical crying and violent breakdowns that used to make for viral television now leave a bad taste in our mouths.

For that reason, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that reality stars appear more careful about their behaviour in 2023. Being more camera trained might not make for iconic moments like Nikki Graham’s “who is she!?” speech, but it does ensure that public breakdowns are kept to a minimum, therefore reducing their repercussions. 

Whilst reality TV might not feel the same as it used to, it’s no bad thing. Maybe contestants feeling kind of scripted is just something we’ll get used to. I mean, it’s not as though we don’t watch scripted shows already, so what’s the harm in feeding lines to twenty-year-olds on Love Island? If it’ll save them from national hatred and harassment when they exit the show, we’re on board.

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