Reality TV

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Words | Gabrielle Edwards

MAFS, The Bachelor, Love Island and More

The year: 2005. 

Five-year-old me had her eyes glued to the screen, mesmerised by Big Brother’s Friday Night Live games in which competitors fought to win certain privileges to help them survive in the house. The challenges. The drama. The stakes. I was obsessed, and there was no going back.

Reality television has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. Being so readily available on virtually any channel or network, it’s practically impossible to have not at least attempted to watch some sort of reality show over the years. While the genre is highly criticised for false advertising, formulaic attempts at entertainment and a general lack of authenticity, these shows continue to flourish, especially in Australia. 

Despite this, reality TV is some of the most highly rated television in Australia in terms of viewership, aside from sport broadcasts, making it a significant element of revenue in the industry. A 2018 survey of over 50,000 Australians showed that reality shows came in at the second most watched genre of television, following the news. This revealed that, on average, 41% of Australians watched reality television at least once a week. With viewership this high, it would be remiss of us not to talk about the highs and lows of Australian reality TV and just why the viewership for this genre is so high.

When someone says reality TV, more often than not, the Bachelor comes to mind. Dating and relationship television shows have particularly blown up within the last ten-years, with shows including the Bachelor franchise and Love Island landing onto our screens.

The Australian iterations of the Bachelor franchise have housed a number of particularly interesting cast members and events. Of course, there’s the notable Nick Cummins, better known as the Honey Badger, who made the bold choice of picking none of the twenty-five girls chosen for him in the 2018 season of the Bachelor. And who could forget the iconic plotline from 2017’s Bachelorette, where contestant Jarrod Woodgate’s pot plant was allegedly urinated in by another contestant. Who ever said reality television wasn’t high-brow entertainment?

Then we have my personal favourite. Married at First Sight Australia (or MAFS) is a reality show currently airing its sixth season on Channel 9. The show follows two strangers being paired up by a set of ‘experts’ to get ‘married’ without having met prior. The show follows several couples as they adjust to married life and is quite possibly one of the most entertaining things on TV today. 

As the show has continued over the years, it’s been extremely interesting to see how they’ve moulded the format of the show to heighten the drama. When the show first started in Australia in 2015, it followed four couples across six episodes before they finally got to meet each other in the final episode. In 2017, the show expanded to feature ten couples across twenty-nine episodes, and unlike the original season featured weekly ‘dinner parties’ where all the contestants got a chance to meet and catch up regularly throughout the show.

Since then the show has continued with this new longer format which managed to increase ratings exponentially. For instance, last year’s season finale brought in two million viewers, a new record for the show. Beyond just the boost to ratings, the new format maximises drama making the show entirely more entertaining and discussion worthy with opportunities for clique forming and cheating scandals ripe and ready for the taking. The show even spawned an additional talk show called Talking Married that aired last year on 9Life (Channel 94) after the show, though is now an online exclusive in 2020. Interestingly, when compared with the New Zealand format you can see just how much higher the budget and production level for MAFS Australia is, and it definitely makes you appreciate it all the more.

Anyway, I promise this isn’t just a not-so-subtle ad for MAFS. Aside from all the hype I give this show, there’s definitely multiple concerns viewers have brought up over the years and it would be impossible to say the show doesn’t warrant criticism.

A lot of the cast over the years have complained about the way they’ve been misrepresented on the show, usually to fit particular archetypes or to shift the blame off the network or producers. Just this season, contestant Poppy Jennings unexpectedly quit the show and took to the media to report how disappointing her match had been, complaining about the way her matched husband had been portrayed a lot kinder than he actually was. She also exposed the producers for threatening to alter her portrayal throughout the show if she shared the real reason why she quit. 

Clare Verall from season two had a similar experience of entering the show on a whim and being pressured to continue in the experiment despite both parties realising the match wasn’t a good fit. Since appearing on the show she received many death threats from viewers, and received little to no support from the network despite them knowing she had previously suffered from mental health issues such as anxiety and PTSD. Since then she has also been diagnosed with clinical depression. 

So clearly the creators of this show hold no regard for cast member’s well-beings, always prioritising the creation of good drama-worthy moments. 

As for Love Island, I never got a chance to make a leap into that hellhole, with the original UK show being cancelled after just six seasons. This is potentially due to a number of cast members also facing severe mental health issues as a result of the show, including three cast members and the show’s host recently dying from suicide. The future of Australia’s Love Island is also left uncertain after last season’s ratings remained low throughout airing, particularly in comparison to its UK counterpart. 

With dating and relationship shows in particular, it is clear that cast members put a lot on the line to appear in the shows. While this definitely makes for some of the most entertaining television, it would be a lot better if networks looked out for members of the show to ensure such tragedies don’t occur. 

Instead, why can’t we all just sit back and watch a group of adult men gossip and debate about who the hell peed in that pot plant? It’s like producers don’t understand that you can have entertainment without ruining people’s lives.

Speaking of non-life ruining entertainment, cooking shows also rank in as some of the most watched shows across Australian television, most likely due to their wide audience appeal. Whether you’re young or old, from admiring the talented contestants, drooling over the delicious food or watching beloved household names guest appearances, there’s something here for everyone. With both My Kitchen Rules and Master Chef running for over ten consecutive years, this format is clearly here and here to stay. 

Alternatively, shows like The Great Australian Bake-Off allow viewers to witness some incredibly talented bakers and delicious desserts without the overly ramped-up stakes and drama. This makes for a much more relaxed and wholesome watching experience for a rainy Sunday afternoon. 

Talent competition shows have also had quite a lot of time in the spotlight over the years, though their popularity does seem to be dwindling. Singing competition formats such as Australian Idol and The X Factor have each been cancelled due to low ratings. The Voice Australia meanwhile still continues and has been renewed in 2020. This is despite ratings showing viewership dropping from more than three million viewers for season one’s finale to just over one million viewers in the latest season finale. 

An oversaturation of such a simple format that rarely changes from season to season or show to show could also explain the downfall of this genre. Potentially, the influx of talent able to find its way by other means, such as viral success online, leaves less of an incentive to apply to these kinds of shows. At this point it’s universally accepted that contestants or winners are rarely heard from again once the season is completed.  

Though, against all these odds, reality shows continue to be constantly pumped out by networks, leaving us all wondering, why? 

Well, compared to most scripted shows, reality television is a lot cheaper to produce and create, with almost guaranteed viewership. Just one example is the fact that reality tv producers aren’t part of the same unions as scripted tv writers are, making them cheaper to hire. Furthermore, most of the contestants or casts of reality shows are paid insignificantly less than actors, if they are paid at all. This allows for profit margins to be as high as 40% just through advertising revenue, making them a great investment for TV networks. American Idol is a great example of this, with the show generating a gross profit margin of 77% at its peak.

The rise of social media has aided the success of the genre even further. With apps making interactive features such as voting even easier, it provides an even greater incentive to watch the shows and get involved. After each episode, social media and forums online also provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the happenings of recent episodes, helping build communities of fans. This helps to make each episode airing appear more like a major event as opposed to a simple hour of entertainment.

Furthermore, unlike scripted shows, reality TV is based on (mostly) real people, meaning they are able to have real interactions outside the show once it has finished. Many reality stars are able to gather loyal fan bases during the airing of their shows, making them perfect vessels to promote the show or other content or brands in future. 

Unfortunately, this can lead to issues, with certain viewers using social media to get in contact and send hateful messages to their least favourite cast members, causing complications for many past stars. Though, if everyone were to make the most of these opportunities, as opposed to abuse their power, the positives of incorporating social media into reality tv viewing is easy to see.

Due to all this, it’s almost guaranteed that reality shows will continue thriving, particularly in Australia. While it seems like everyone is quick to criticise the genre as a whole, it can’t be denied that reality TV has its merits and is here to stay. Despite being a low-involvement form of entertainment, it opens up plenty of avenues for small talk or discussions with co-workers, family and friends. 

Certain criticisms should definitely be addressed, including ensuring contestants and cast members concerns are met both during and after their time on the show. And, reality shows could do a lot better at hiring more diverse casts that more accurately reflect the Australian population.  With online streaming platforms such as Netflix already being involved in producing their own reality content internationally, it will be even more interesting to see how this will pan out with Australian content and where this next renaissance in reality TV will take us.