Realism and Television
Question : Discuss realism by considering a television program that has
realistic qualities. In your discussion specifically refer to Chapter 14 of the
textbook, ‘Documentary and “reality TV”’, by Branston and Stafford (2006).
Realism plays an important role in the success of a good television program. The
ability to relate and appeal to the senses of the target audience is an essential
characteristic of any media form. This essay explores how realism is perceived in
television today with reference to both reality and documentary genres of
television. The remainder of the essay will present a case study of a television
program which demonstrates realistic qualities.
What is Realism?
It has been argued that we are living in a ‘postdocumentary’ culture, a time of
talk shows, reality t.v, game shows and the persuasion of celebrity (Branston,
Stafford 2006: 455). When we refer to ‘realism’ within the context of television it
conjures up a multitude of meanings. For example, realism may indicate that the
program is ‘realistic’ because of the subject matter, like that of a documentary.
Moreover, a television program could be considered ‘realistic’ because it features
unscripted ordinary people in contrived situations, like Big Brother. One thing is
certain, realism, or the illusion of realism, is very prevalent in television today.
Reality tv? Distorted Realism…
Flick on the television during peak times on a week night and it’s pretty difficult
to avoid reality television. From home makeovers to celebrity fit clubs, the
popularity with ‘so called’ reality television is astounding. But is reality tv just
another highly produced product of the culture industry? More often that not,
these reality programs are highly constructed to attract viewers. As Andrejevic
questions, “Why is Reality tv pretending that it’s real, so that we may cannily
believe it’s phony, when it accurately portrays the reality of contrivance in
contemporary society?”(Andrejevic 2004). These programs are clearly not an
accurate representation of how most people live. It seems the message of reality
television is that ordinary people can become so significant that millions of
people will watch them, and as a result, ordinary people are considered potential
media stars. Ordinary people watch these programs, see people like
themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities by being on
television (Reiss 2001). This is evident by the large number of reality tv stars that
This is a preview of the whole essay
have gone on to have careers in the media. For example, Elizabeth Hassleback
from the first series of the reality tv program Survivor is now a co-host of the
popular talk show in the US “The View”. ‘Reality tv’, definitely has it’s fair share
of critics. It has been blamed of damaging our youth’s perception of what reality
truly means, even going to the extent of accusing it of being and abusive and
exploitative of children in shows like, ‘Wifeswap’ and ‘Trading Spouses’ (Schlessinger 2004).
The perception of what is fact and fiction in regards to television is no longer a
clear margin (Study guide 9:5). Semiotic codes (study of signs) in television
represent a kind of ‘language’, and we all learn how to decode these signs and
symbols in to explain what we see (Herrman, 2000). With any luck, the viewers
of these reality programs can distinguish what is true reality and not when they
are watching these programs.
Documentaries - The Art of Performing
Just like news, documentaries are recognized as reproducing the truthful version
of the story to the audience. With the popularity of the reality tv culture it has
been argued that these types of shows have tainted the significance of
documentaries (Branston, Stafford 2006:.455).
Documentaries have the ability to showcase complex subject matter with
an accurate and credible approach. It has been argued that a documentary is
a “performative act whose truth comes into being only at the moment of
filming”(Bruzzi 2000:6). Moreover, documentaries portray a ‘real’ perspective
according to the film maker themselves, just as reality tv, documentaries are
constructed to a certain extent. In other words, the audience assumes the point of
view from where the camera shooting. Branston and Stafford suggest in the
example of Micheal Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 where there were key
issues that were not mentioned like the role of Israel, which in effect, persuades
the audience in a certain position (Branston, Stafford 2006: 469).
Of all the genres of television, documentaries still continue do the finest
duty of relaying an accurate interpretation of ‘real-world’ issues with minimal
Case Study: “Intervention”(Mondays 9.30am, Channel 115, Foxtel)
The television program which I have chosen to critique in relation to it’s realistic
qualities is ‘Intervention’. It’s a powerful and transfixing US-based series in
which people confront their addiction and seek a route to recovery. The series
profiles individuals whose dependency on drugs, alcohol or other compulsive
behavior has brought them to an all-time low and estranged them from their
family and loved ones. The addicts featured in the series believe they have
signed up to participate in a documentary on ‘addiction’.
Each episode begins with a brief introduction to the subject, and then he or she is
followed around by a camera crew. The program ends with a surprise
intervention that is staged in which they are confronted with a life-altering
choice: rehabilitation or risk losing all contact with the loved ones who instigated
the intervention. Often, other tactics are used to persuade the addicted person
into treatment, which vary depending on the situation. Interviews with the
subject, as well as family members or friends who have agreed to participate, are
The Intervention falls under the reality tv genre of television and can be
described as an ‘information programme’, as it uses true stories to educate the
audience on the subject matter (Branston, Stafford 2006:474). The show has more
the feel of a documentary than a reality TV program, although predominately
factual there a certain aspects of the program that are clearly constructed. The
producers and creators of the program make the rules, they create the setting,
they film it according to specific guidelines as to what they think are going to
provide good television.
So Why Is ‘Intervention’ So Realistic?
There are a number of characteristics that this television program possesses
which contributes in creating a sense of realism for the viewer:
1) Subject Matter
‘Intervention’ is the dramatic and disturbing insight into the day in the life of an
addict that features graphic footage of addicts shooting up on television has
prompted some controversy. "It makes prime-time sport of vulnerable, desperate
people and their spiral to the bottom," wrote Matthew Gilbert of the Boston
Globe. All though it’s ugly to watch, unfortunately the reality of addiction and
the dysfunction it creates is very real for many families. Most viewers would
know someone who it has been impacted by the power of addiction.
According to Addictionintervention.com, the interventions that are staged on
the series represent a realistic and account of what actually takes place during a
‘Intervention’ series utilizes a ‘drama-documentary’ style which combines
elements of documentary and drama (Branston, Stafftord 2006:456). This hybrid
genre produces a very authentic sense of reality for the viewer, absent are the
contrivances of most reality shows. Moreover, the participants of the show are
ordinary people with real addictions, there are no million dollar prizes, no
mansions, no bachelors, or games. According to the series, millions of people
struggle with addiction, so the subject matter is a very real problem existing in
society. There are no actors or re enactments, these are ‘real’ people going
about their life. ‘Intervention’ demonstrates the characteristics of a documentary
by presenting the strict facts of the event but also the program has the ability to
raise the larger issues associated with addiction, such as family disintegration.
Unfortunately the stories that are told are true, it’s something that we would like
to believe does not exist in this world, but we all know that it does.
3) Camera Angles
The series is shot in a documentary-style, which makes it less refined and more
credible (Branston, Stafford 2006:458). The participants bring an honesty and
rawness to the show that supersedes the blatant expectations that are all too
common to reality programming. The unrehearsed reaction to the intervention
from the addict is completely unpredictable. Sometimes the addict agrees to the
treatment but more often than not the addict runs away, so without warning the
production crew are unexpectedly running down the street. The scrabbling
footage adds to the authenticity and legitimacy of the program (Branston,
Stafford 2006: 458).
4) Unscripted Narratives
‘Intervention” does not use a narrator, instead, the subject and his loved ones tell
the story, with occasional text commentary, which contributes to the realism. The
leading characters of the program are ‘ordinary’ people from working class
backgrounds, which is very relatable to a broad audience (Branston, Stafford
2006:460). The unscripted narratives between the addicts and their families
generate a sense of normalcy, quite often they have to bleep out language when
arguments get heated. The music is very limited in the program, there is some
intense music just before the intervention which makes for an element of drama.
The ‘Intervention’ series, has the identical structure in each program. The first
half hour profiles the individual, the next 20 minutes focuses on the intervention
itself, the last 10 minutes focuses on the follow-up of the individual. There is no
set, no staging, the program is filmed on location, meaning where ever the
individual lives. The program is filmed in the home of the individual and the
intervention, usually takes place at a nearby hotel. The fact that the program
could be filmed anywhere is a factor in producing a sense of realism.
5) Not Always a Happy Ending
The ‘Intervention’ program does not always have a happy ending, which
contributes in creating a sense of honesty for the audience. In a recent episode of
‘Intervention’, the featured addict did agree to go to a rehabilitation facility but
was kicked out not long after for breaking the rules. Unfortunately he went back
to living on the streets and still struggling with his drug addiction and still
estranged from his family (Intervention, aired 20/4/2007, 10pm,A&E channel).
This program reiterates that sometimes real life is not pretty, and some situations
cannot be resolved in a 60 minute episode.
Although the ’Intervention’ program is a cutting edge and controversial, the fact
of the matter is, addiction is a very real issue in today’s society. According to
the National Drug Strategy, the tangible social costs of drug use in Australia
were estimated to be $18.3 billion from in 1998–99. With these statistics like this,
addiction should be a matter certainly worthy of attention. ()
In conclusion, it’s apparent that there are still some programs on television that
are able to give a ‘realistic’ insight into certain subject matters. After all, the
television is our interaction with the outside world, media should continue
to focus attention on these social problems to generate awareness and education
with this type of programming.
Andrejevic, Mark ‘Reality TV:The Work of Being Watched’ Lanham MD: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004 1-20
Branston, G. and Stafford, R., 2006. ‘Documentary & ‘Reality tv’, in The Media Student’s Book, 4th ed., Routledge, Abingdon, UK, and New York, pp. 455-478
Herrmann, Stefan ‘Do we learn to ‘read’ television like a kind of ‘language’? May 2000
Reiss S, Wiltz J ‘Why America loves reality TV’ - Feature - Brief Article,
Schlessinger, L ‘Realism in family television?’ October 27, 2004