The Tube Has Spoken: Reality TV and History. Edited by Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN: 978-8131-2553-4, $40. 275 pages.
Review by Katie Ellis, University of Western Australia
Popular debates around reality TV often center on the longevity of the genre, the potential for audience fatigue, and whether the participants are really being themselves. Academic analyses of this genre are growing but, as Julie Anne Taddeo and Ken Dvorak, the co-editors of The Tube has Spoken argue, most often come from a media or communications studies framework. Taddeo and Dvorak bring together an eclectic collection of essays in The Tube Has Spoken in an attempt to investigate the genre from an historical view point through an examination of the social, political, and cultural forces that influence the production and reception of this hybrid format.
The book is divided into three sections: Reality TV as Social Experiment, which looks at the origins of this format in social experiment; Class, Gender and Reimaging of Family Life, which examines reality TV along social lines and the ways the family is invoked as a boundary between the public and the private (a line reality TV often blurs); and a final section on Living History as a subset of reality TV that attempts to return the genre to its documentary roots through historical manipulations.
Part I explores the somewhat innocent motivations of early reality TV as a social experiment documenting how it has evolved in order to prevent audience fatigue of the format. Fred Nadis in his opening chapter argues that reality TV can be traced back to Cold War programming such as Candid Microphone (on radio) and the television equivalent Candid Camera. This format, which questioned public conformity, emerged out of a changing technological environment and advances in the area of psychology, yet Allan Funt (creator of Candid) quickly realised that real drama and entertainment surfaced not through observing but through directly influencing the course of action.
Similarly, Barron, and Leggott and Hochscherf, examine the producer’s manipulating influence in Big Brother and Jamie’s School Dinners respectively. While these programs open a space for the investigation of social problems, they often invoke and perpetuate stereotypes of race, class and gender while directing the course of the “celebritising” process. Cassandra Jones’s investigation of the ways The Biggest Loser draws on the American Frontier myth to advance the notion that a patriotic American is thin was my favorite chapter in this section, yet it did not examine why patriotism was particularly important to the American psyche in 2006.
The second section on class, gender, and the family begins with an interesting piece by Laurie Rupert and Sayanti Ganguly Puckett which argues that the 1973 PBS produced “thesis-documentary” An American Family had a significant impact on the reality TV format. For the authors, An American Family emerged during a time of social change and advanced the producer’s agenda that the American dream was turning into a nightmare and that the institution of marriage was dying. This is an important piece that reveals the ways both reality TV and documentaries manipulate everything, a concept that is picked up in later chapters. Following the success of An American Family, the BBC created The Family for British audiences in 1974.
Rather than focus on a wealthy family in the same vein as the American production, the British producers were influenced by the political and social context to follow an extended working-class family living together in one small council flat. This is the subject of Holmes’s chapter as she investigates the ways individuals are used to stand in for society at large and the cultural anxiety of being on display. Through admissions of infidelity, premarital teenaged sex and interracial marriage, The Family was perceived by some to be not truly representative of its time.
The next chapter, which investigates the Canadian example of makeover reality TV, like the first two chapters of this section, encourage the reader to interpret the programs of this genre as not simply reinforcing the hegemony. Via an examination of the carnivalesque aspects of humor invoked by the Canadian hosts of Plastic Makes Perfect, Matheson argues that Canadian productions disrupt dominant discourses of gender and nation by invoking the pleasure derived from American style makeover formats in a way that provokes a rethinking of the discourse.
Up to this point, the collection distinguishes itself from other discussions on the topic by considering the social and historical influences of reality TV formats and productions without dismissing the genre as the worst television has to offer. This focus shifts quite dramatically in Olson’s investigation of Kid Nation as a commodification of childhood. Olson notes that Kid Nation reconstructs childhood in a mediated space and then destroys it by forcing children to take on adult qualities. Although one of the strongest entries in this collection due to its rigorous content analysis, something surprisingly absent from a number of the other chapters, the social and cultural construction of childhood was not considered in this paper, with twenty-first-century ideals of childhood described as “natural.”
The final section consists of three papers which consider the living history subgenre of reality TV, whereby participants are taken back in time and encouraged to live with historical authenticity. Taddeo and Dvorak’s analysis of 1900 House explores the idea of historical inaccuracy to revisit the notion that reality is not as important as drama in this genre. The program reinforces idealized images of family togetherness, gender, and class, and uses fictional artefacts (such as Jane Austen novels) as points of reference rather than pursuing historical accuracy which contemporary participants would likely struggle with.
In the next two chapters, which deal with Australian programming including The Colony and Outback House, the authors explore the ways national myths and realities are forgotten and remembered in an attempt to rehabilitate a shameful colonial history. Each chapter in this section reveals the ways a social memory of the past is learned through books, movies, and other media. Thus, every participant in reality TV is influenced by what they already know about social identities, something that becomes particularly important when producers attempt to reconstruct history. In Schellings’s analysis of her frustrating attempt to produce a Making of documentary of The Colony, we are reminded that in the attempt to make history accessible, manipulation is inevitable.
Throughout the collection, writers often invoke the discourse of documentary theorization to situate the criteria for a social and historical investigation of reality TV beyond the notion of a “cultural wasteland.” The analysis of older forms and trends successfully address the political and social contexts, but the newer formats are not as illuminating. While I was encouraged by the readings that prompted critics to interpret this genre beyond the hegemonic, I did find myself yearning for more of a content analysis of the texts themselves. However perhaps that is not the aim of the book. The tools of historical analysis offered throughout the collection are important and provide a way to consider the intertextual influence of this genre and the texts themselves as historical documents.