BBC – Culture – The power of reality TV in a pandemic age



The first case of Covid-19 in Brazil was confirmed on 25 February but for the residents of one large, three-bedroom house in suburban Rio de Janeiro, lockdown began over a month earlier. Manu, Mari and Thelma, a doctor, are three of six remaining contestants in the current series of Big Brother Brasil – they each entered the house at the beginning of the series on 20 January and have been living out a curiously public form of self-isolation ever since. 

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Until four weeks ago, the housemates had no idea that a pandemic was raging beyond the walls of the compound. As usual, phones, media and any contact with the outside world are forbidden and new contestants entering the house were banned from talking about the only thing that anyone is talking about at the moment. When the housemates were finally given the news, it was on camera. It was “a great opportunity to inform and alert our viewers about Covid-19, but also to ensure the safety of our houseguests,” the show’s general director Rodrigo Dourado told Variety, glossing over the ethics of keeping his charges in the dark until that point.

There were similar scenes in the German, Swedish and Canadian versions of Big Brother. In the latter, contestants puzzled over why they could no longer hear a live audience booing and cheering on eviction night. “Maybe the house is… suddenly soundproof?” wondered one before the show was cancelled and the prize money donated to health charities.

We’re all housemates now

Big Brother Brasil, however, is still going – without a live studio audience, and with increased hygiene measures and constant monitoring of the contestants by a medical team, who might arguably be better deployed elsewhere. The final is due to take place on 27 April, four days later than originally planned, because it is a huge hit. A record-breaking 1.5 billion votes were cast on the tenth eviction night at the end of March (viewers are allowed to vote multiple times); the episode had a viewing share of 55% in Rio de Janeiro and 51% in São Paulo. “In the face of the current world reality, ‘being confined together’ has gained a new meaning,” said Dourado.

On Friday, meanwhile, Netflix launched its latest addition to the reality TV genre, which offers its own skewed take on lockdown life. Too Hot to Handle is a particularly lusty mash-up of dating reality TV hits Love Island and Love is Blind in which an international group of gorgeous young people are confined to a tropical island and encouraged to find a mate. The twist is that once they find one, they are banned from touching them.

Do Big Brother and other reality television shows have a particular, perverse appeal in the time of lockdown? Certainly they offer a frisson of recognition with contestants confined for days on end, squabbling over household chores or disappointing food supplies and struggling with Groundhog Day-style tedium. Might we even watch them with more empathy than we have done in the past?

It’s fascinating to watch shows about human interaction at a time when that’s the one thing we’re not really able to do – Dr Tanya Horeck

“We’re all trapped now,” says Dr Tanya Horeck, Reader in Film, Media & Culture at Anglia Ruskin University. “People are using reality TV as a way of trying to process how we’re feeling during lockdown. I’ve seen countless posts on social media of people saying things like ‘It’s Day 35 in the Big Brother House’.”

Conversely, the spectacle of humans living out their daily existence and doing the simplest things – hanging out, sunbathing with friends, touching their faces, washing their hands without singing Happy Birthday and so on – makes for a particularly wistful form of escapism. “Reality TV has an intimacy which makes it quite powerful at this time. The shows bring us up close to real people,” says Horeck. “It’s also quite fascinating to watch shows about human interaction at a time when that’s the one thing we’re not really able to do.”

A social distancing experiment

Notionally, Too Hot to Handle is social distancing as entertainment – filmed before most of the world had heard of the term. However the entertainment depends on those distancing rules being broken, of course. Kissing, heavy petting and sex all result in the $100,000 prize fund being depleted to varying degrees. There is even a censorious virtual host called Lana, a sort of cone-shaped Alexa/ Google Home hybrid, who spies on contestants, denouncing them when they break the rules and rewarding them when they comply. Like Love is Blind before it, which had its contestants date, fall in love and eventually get engaged sight unseen in closed-off pods to test the importance of physical attraction in a relationship, Too Hot to Handle presents itself as a form of sociological experiment. “The question is”, says the voiceover, “in a world without sex, will they form deeper and more meaningful connections?”

Reality TV is edited really snappily and that probably serves our scattergun brains at a moment where we are finding it harder to concentrate – Frances Taylor

Anyone who watches the show hoping for a serious answer to that question, or indeed anything that might illuminate our newly hermetic existence, will be disappointed. “I’m just going to go back to the outside world and get back to shagging birds,” says one contestant in the final episode.

However edifying or not it may be, there is something soothing about the formula and rhythm of reality TV that makes it ideal lockdown viewing at a time when people are watching more television than ever. In the UK, according to the ratings analysts Barb, viewing across broadcast TV is up by more than 30% on this time last year. For the week ending 29 March 2020, the average time spent watching television was 3 hours 46 minutes a day, 53 minutes a day more than in the same week in 2019.

In the US, TV ratings for the four major broadcast networks, ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS, have increased each week since 1 March, with reality TV shows such as American Idol and Game of Games increasing their audience by more than 30%; the March finale of The Bachelor was the most watched instalment of the show since 2016. HBO’s audience was up 20% in the week beginning 16 March on the previous month, while binge viewing of their shows (defined by them as watching at least three episodes of any one series in a day) was up by 65%.

“People are turning to more light-hearted, escapist programmes,” says Frances Taylor, commissioning editor for comedy & entertainment at Radio Times. “Reality TV is generally far choppier, and edited really snappily so there’s not too long to dwell on one thing before you’re onto the next. That probably serves our scattergun brains at a moment where we are finding it harder to concentrate.” 

A safe space for viewers

Shows that are just compelling enough, easily digestible, largely predictable and in which the stakes could barely be lower are proving popular in a time of heightened peril. Take the current UK series of the reassuringly formulaic cooking BBC competition Masterchef (which follows the last Masterchef series by a mere matter of weeks). It posted record viewing figures of 7.9 million at the end of March. On Easter Saturday [18 April], Britain’s Got Talent launched its new series on ITV with 8.2 million viewers, its best launch since 2017 and a contrast with last year’s, which was the lowest since the show began in 2007.

With the audition rounds having got well underway before the first case of Covid-19 within the UK was annouced, it offers a kind of safe space for viewers, says Taylor. “It’s quite nice knowing that there’s not suddenly going to be a mention of coronavirus. You can almost pretend for an hour it isn’t happening.”

Netflix now has its ultimate fantasy of the viewer – trapped inside, unable to go out, locked in a one-to-one engagement with the Netflix interface – Dr Tanya Horeck

Terrace House, a Japanese co-production between Fuji TV and Netflix, is the very definition of a televisual safe space. Perhaps the most mellow reality show ever made, it centres on six young people (three men, three women) who move into a tastefully decorated apartment in Tokyo together and… just carry on with their lives. They go to work, meet up with friends and continue with their hobbies and interests and then they come home and politely talk to their housemates about it over beautifully filmed food. Occasionally, very tentatively, very slowly, they pursue romance with each other. When they have had enough, they simply leave. In the current climate where most everyday activities are off-limits, the banality becomes almost beautiful to watch. 

The latest series was due to culminate this summer with the 2020 Olympics but production was finally suspended on 13 April, “to give top priority to the health and safety of [our] cast and staff.” In the meantime there are 36 episodes and three previous series to watch on the site. As traditional broadcasters scramble to fill their schedules, Netflix is primed to capitalise on the fact that they offer an apparently bottomless opportunity to binge. 

“Netflix seems to be trying to position itself as the pandemic streaming service,” says Horeck. “Binge-watching has always been central to its business model, as a way to lock viewers in 24/7. Its main goal is to colonise everyone’s attention – its CEO Reed Hastings famously said that Netflix’s biggest competitor is sleep. So it has always been ready for a pandemic in a way, and this is its ultimate fantasy of the viewer – trapped inside, unable to go out, locked in a one-to-one engagement with the Netflix interface.”

Can reality TV fill the gaps?

With the cancellation of major sporting events including the 2020 Olympics, Euro 2020 and Wimbledon leaving vast holes in TV schedules, there have been calls on social media in the UK for Channel 4 to repeat, or upload to their streaming service, All 4, the first few series of Big Brother from the early noughties. As well as soaking up hours and hours on the schedules, they could simultaneously chime with the zeitgeist and offer audiences the kind of comfortable, nostalgic viewing they appear to crave at the moment.

“The first series was fundamentally people sitting around, looking after chickens and not doing very much at all. That’s what we’re all doing right now,” says Taylor. “I think it would be incredibly popular. And it’s a far more guilt-free exercise now. Reality TV takes up a lot of time. What else do you have to do now? Absolutely nothing.” 

In the meantime the race is on for new television shows which can be made in accordance with social-distancing rules. Reality television is relatively cheap to make and fairly easy to operate at a distance once the cameras are in place, so could be the genre to triumph in these adverse conditions, when soap operas, dramas and shows with live audiences are forced to suspend filming. Too Hot to Handle, like The Circle, proceeds without a presenter, instead delivering instructions by means of a virtual host.

Given the superficial similarities of life under lockdown with traditional reality formats, it won’t be long before the first pandemic programming hits. “Reality TV brings together so many different genres – the soap opera, the gameshow, the melodrama, the talk show, even sport,” says Horeck. “Some kind of Reality TV docu-series about Tinder and dating remotely in the age of the pandemic will surely be next.”

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