There was a time, not so long ago, when critics predicted the end of reality television.
Big Brother had the infamous ‘turkey slap,’ incident, Extreme Makeover and The Swan filmed people surgically mutilating themselves in order to look like Barbie and Ken dolls, while programs like Survivor, The Bachelor, Boot Camp and even the Biggest Loser, not only revealed the depths to which human nature would sink, but invited competitors and viewers to revel in displays of excess: flesh, emotions, psychological reactions and banality.
Cheap to produce, it seemed that ‘actuality’ programming had reached its nadir. Lately, however, there is a rebirth of the genre.
The Channel 10 reality show, Masterchef Australia, has not only attracted high ratings (over 2 million viewers for some episodes), and spawned acres of commentary in the popular press and online, but been touted as responsible for a rise in cook booksales, kitchen appliances and as heralding a renaissance for local butchers.
With the final episode scheduled to screen this Sunday, July 19, it’s time to reflect upon not only why this tasty televisual dish has tempted audiences, but what type of reality television Australians like being served in the post Big-Brother era.
Adapted from the highly popular weekly British show, Masterchef, the Australian version is a ‘nice’ show in that much of the competitiveness and negativity is left on the cutting room floor. Even the principal judges (two chefs and a food critic) go out of their way, wherever possible, to provide constructive if not kind feedback. So do the guest judges.
In other words, Masterchef offers what earlier RTV did not – the chance for the family to come together around the television set to watch a show that doesn’t so much foreground the notion of competition as it does cooking skills.
There’s nothing offensive on screen, no sex, nudity or the potential for this. It’s a safe show that offers the opportunity for viewers to learn something as well. That hasn’t stopped online forums fantisizing about those on screen – the way to viewers’ hearts is definitely through their stomachs.
It’s also a program that reflects the zeitgeist. As we struggle find and balance our dwindling finances, the show reminds us that we don’t have to leave the home to have an experience. On the contrary, we can make home and the food we prepare the event itself.
The pleasures associated with planning a menu, cooking and serving it cannot be underestimated. Nor can appreciative family and friends.
But Masterchef is only one of a number of successful shows that offer more than first appears. Dancing with the Stars and Australia’s Got Talent along with So You Think You Can Dance and The Biggest Loser are all programs that are appealing to a wide audience.
A combination of spectacular entertainment and colourful fantasy with edgy, interactive competition, Channel Seven has struck gold with its celebrity dancing. Even a blind competitor with loads of character and a marvellous self-deprecating humour has over-ridden any criticisms that his inclusion was nothing more than a cheap ratings grab.
Likewise, the other talent shows involving dancing, singing and anything else we care to try, have been unexpected hits. Showcasing the abilities and foibles of ordinary folk, they create a yardstick against which viewers can measure and, consequently, in the security of home, judge their own performances – in life and relationships.
They function like the morality plays of old and, it seems, we’re learning the lessons and coming back for second and third helpings.
For all that we pretend society is one big vat of vanilla yoghurt, we do love to compete and watch people making fools of themselves or, as Susan Boyle, Paul Potts and many others have demonstrated, turn a fairytale into a contemporary reality.
Family-friendly, provoking allegiances and debates, online discussions and the posting of video and commentary, these shows don’t need buckets of money, production companies or television stations to transcend geographical borders, language or cultural barriers.
Like soap operas, these programs are generating gossip and creating cyber and real communities of such interest that this ensures their continuation.
Perhaps this is what a show like Masterchef really demonstrates. While the schadenfreude principle is alive and well, there comes a time when, across our dysfunctional, wonderful world, we’ve had our fill of others’ real pain and would rather vicariously partake in each others’ attempts to succeed and, sometimes, triumph.
Revenge may be a dish that’s best served cold, but we like our RTV shared, with lashings of the warm and fuzzies on the side.
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