To some, reality TV has been a means of escape during these strange times.
Australians love the genre and it has dominated the major network schedules and the ratings in the two decades since Popstars and the first season of Big Brother.
But the distraction this kind of TV offers has been threatened as we’ve come to realise that nothing is (yet) immune to COVID-19, including television production.
The eighth season of The Bachelor, currently airing on Network Ten, will soon start showing dates conducted over Zoom after filming was halted earlier in the year due to the coronavirus.
Similarly, the upcoming finale of The Masked Singer has been thrown into disarray by an on-set outbreak, while earlier in the year, Masterchef — one of the more warm-and-fuzzy reality shows — instituted a no-hugging policy.
Of course, reality TV doesn’t always depict something resembling real life.
Yes, we go on dates, but we don’t usually don kitten masks and sing competitively.
Still, the genre’s popularity prompts deeper questions about what reality TV offers us when reality itself, during a time of social distancing, is so weird.
These shows are popular … and communal
While some reality TV shows have seen an uptick in audience during the various periods of lockdown and isolation this year, others have not.
Masterchef saw a big resurgence, possibly because of its feel-good nature but also thanks to some strong rebranding in the form of new judges like Melissa Leong, according to TV Tonight editor David Knox.
“Other shows, including Australian Ninja Warrior, Farmer Wants A Wife [and] The Voice, have also performed well,” Knox says.
“But other reality shows such as My Kitchen Rules, House Rules, The Bachelor [and] Bachelor in Paradise are down compared to recent seasons.
Still, Google search data shows there is significant interest around many titles, particularly Masterchef and The Bachelor, and these shows will often trend on social media platforms around the airing of episodes.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Melbourne, has a theory about this:
“Reality television — particularly Australian-made reality TV — likely gives people who are socially isolated some sense of social contact, albeit vicarious, with a bunch of familiar-seeming and notably familiar-sounding people who are able to join us in our homes regularly,” she said.
“Unlike streamed content, where we’re all watching it at different times, broadcast reality television enables a real-time community to happen, with viewers able to participate in an online discussion about the show in real-time.”
This is the case for some long-time fans
That includes Sydneysider Bethany Nevile, 30, whose devotion to The Bachelor has extended to coordinating an office sweep.
“There’s a relatability and a community to it that is different to scripted formats,” she says.
… including strangers on Twitter.
Though she says that watching people fall in love and buy houses feels like “a weird sort of otherworld” in the current circumstances, she does feel like the genre offers an “unwinding” that is important right now.
Others liken reality TV at this moment to the distraction of everyone watching Tiger King in March.
“Everyone had the chance to talk about something other than the news cycle, which is based all around coronavirus,” says Phoebe, 25, also from Sydney, who asked that her last name not be used.
Drama or scripted shows don’t offer that same escape, she says.
“That’s why I find it super relaxing.”
That factor likely helps with the building of community, Dr Rosewarne says, because you can tweet or scroll Instagram while watching, knowing many others — including the host of the show — will be doing the same.
Still, others have grown tired of the genre
Let’s remember an important fact: reality TV is not reality.
These are highly produced and carefully edited shows. They use real interactions to build drama and a narrative arc and to shape characters.
The method stretches back to some of the earliest reality shows, like US series The Osbournes, an early hit for Network Ten that pioneered a format later adopted by Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
“That’s the family, but for every 500 minutes of footage that we shoot, we use one minute,” Jeff Stilson, a former comedy writer who worked as a co-executive producer on the show, told the ABC back in 2002.
The ways in which contestants are represented, and the focus on interpersonal drama and tension — not to mention the exclusion of non-heterosexual identities — have alienated some fans.
It’s partly what drove the success this year of Masterchef, which critics felt championed a more inclusive, supportive atmosphere that was competitive but not bitchy.
“While they talk about their backgrounds, it’s more about the actual master chef — you see them cook,” says Rebecca Kleeberg, 47, from the Morning Peninsula.
Ms Kleeberg was a devoted Big Brother fan from its first season. She joined an online forum and even won a TV through a Big Brother competition.
But aside from Masterchef, she has largely drifted away from the genre, describing herself as “burned out”.
She thinks it has morphed from providing a view of human interaction into darkly pitting contestants against one another in a series of games or challenges.
“Also, they seemed to stack the [Big Brother] houses with models and the people that looked like they were aspiring to be celebrities of sorts,” she says.
She contrasts it with Reggie Bird, the fish and chip shop owner from season two: “[The contestants now] are thinking of their media status afterwards.”
A lot has changed since Sara-Marie’s bum dance
Since then, shows have multiplied and produced spin-offs. Debates about ethics have continued. And some shows are beginning to acknowledge their cultural blind spots.
Dr Rosewarne says audiences have become experts — they know the tropes and the means of manipulation, keeping producers on their toes.
Most importantly, social media has not just built a community around these shows but engendered a kind of accountability.
“This has seen demands from audiences for greater diversity, more sensitive portrayals, heightened concerns regarding mental health of participants … producers have to pay attention to these demands because of the public way these concerns are aired,” she says.
While Ms Kleeberg will be sticking to scripted comedy to alleviate the stress of lockdown, Ms Nevile is excited about the prospect of a COVID-19 storyline on The Bachelor — of the tangents of real life and reality TV colliding.
“It’s an extreme version of something familiar,” she says, as if defining the genre itself.
“It’s going to be one of the first times on TV that we see what we are all experiencing shown back to us.”