“The judgement of quality is always situated. That is to say, somebody makes the judgement from some aesthetic or political or moral position.” (Feuer, 2007: 145)
This latest contribution to CST has been inspired by the viewing choices of most of my students, and their predilection for what has variously been described as popular television and mass entertainment. I am conscious that for the most part, when we teach television it is usually based around the notion of ‘quality TV’ and quality audiences, quality TV dramas, and narrative complexity. In many respects, these concepts raise issues surrounding taste, value, cultural and textual hierarchies, art and non-art, and what is or is not perceived as legitimate to the study, and teaching of television. However, television is a huge landscape and quality TV drama, if my students are to be believed, makes up only a small part of that landscape. Through its accolades, its status, and its cultural worth (and its budgets), Quality TV is often held as proof of the changing nature of television, of television’s new-found cultural cache, and oddly, therefore, as suitable material to study. But does television have to be ‘quality’ before it can be deemed suitable for study? Has the desire to legitimise television as a cultural form, through notions of ‘quality’, served to reinstate or perpetuate those hierarchies and divides that traditionally saw TV as mass entertainment and therefore inconsequential?
Part of my title, Legitimate Television, is, in some respects, an empirical continuation of Newman and Levine’s excellent study Legitimating Television (2012), a study which observes how ‘legitimation may seem an important step forward for those who value, enjoy, and feel invested in television’. However, as with Newman and Levine, this paper observes that whilst all television is legitimate for study, certain hierarchies of taste persist. Just ask Joey Essex.
This dynamic particularly relevant to my current situation where I have found myself with quite a few students asking me not only for help with their chosen study of Reality TV, but also, if it is a permissible area for study. This example and situation potentially highlights how we approach popular television.
In some respects, students asking me questions on Reality TV presents itself as a double-edged sword. I am happy the students in question have identified Reality TV as a suitable example for their studies, but a bit disappointed with the questions they were asking. The students in question seem to have bought into the idea that Reality TV, despite (or even because of) its ubiquity and popularity, could only really be discussed if first it was acknowledged to be a frivolous, non-serious, and aberrant phenomenon and example. Of course, Reality TV can be described in all of these terms as I will explain later, but that should not invalidate how significant Reality TV has been in highlighting the dynamics of contemporary television culture, contemporary viewing experiences, and also changes in the broadcast industries. It seems that Reality TV is both an example of niche programming/audiences, and popular mass viewing. As evidence of this I have pointed the said students in the direction of some useful writing and research in this area – Andrejevic (2008), Hill (2005), Murray & Ouellette (2004), and of course the extremely helpful Understanding Reality Television by Holmes and Jermyn (2004) – more in hope of changing their mind-set and approach to the genre than in any provision for answers to their questions.
This said, I have to first state that I am not a fan of Reality TV, at least not in the sense that I have a favourite show or that I regularly sit down and watch them for pleasure (I don’t). But, for me, and for the purposes of the job I am in, that is not the point. Coming from a research background in Popular Culture Studies and popular narrative, whether I am a fan or not does not blind me to the wider significance of Reality TV, both as a phenomenon and as a distinct televisual form. In popular culture, we see the popularity of these texts as broadly representative of the general television viewing experience, and therefore incredibly revealing about prevailing attitudes in both industry and culture. That these programmes are NOT art and NOT elitist is exactly the point. Although the content of Reality TV may not seem very intelligent to some, that does not mean we cannot talk intelligently about it.
Further, I will argue, their distinct forms, their popularity, and their transnational and global ubiquity has been influential beyond their various incarnations, impacting even upon the height of television studies ‘good taste’ – television dramas. This idea of ‘good taste’ is central to my theme. Further, as Murray and Ouellette point out, not only does Reality TV share a lineage with the ‘serious’ and innovative fly-on-the-wall television documentary, but the format itself has “become increasingly specialized and stylistically sophisticated” (2004: 2) as niche programming has developed and niche target audiences have come to the fore in broadcaster’s way of thinking. In other words, Reality TV seemingly occupies both broad popular spaces, and niche spaces in the television landscape. This should tell us something interesting about contemporary television.
However, this is not just the place to provide another study of Reality TV, but rather to wonder what we mean by the term ‘popular television’, and the merits of teaching, studying and watching popular television. For Christine Geraghty (2003) these debates boil down to evaluation and aesthetics, and while she suggests, not very convincingly, that “television lacks a critical culture in which evaluation is openly discussed” (clearly written before the advent of CST), she does make an interesting point when she says that rather than looking for one set of television aesthetics as a marker of quality, a more useful approach might be to “attend to particular television categories” (2003: 25). I am quite prepared to take Reality TV on its own terms. I am quite prepared to believe Joey Essex (TOWIE) has something to say, even if he doesn’t realise what it is exactly.
As I have already briefly alluded to, the study of television drama and of the ‘quality television’ drama series tends to dominate studies in television, and largely (though certainly not exclusively) through ideas of ‘good taste’, and that other, equally complex concept ‘Quality TV’. As Kim Akass and Janet McCabe observe (Quality TV, 2007), both ‘popular television’ and ‘quality’ television, as concepts, attract equal scorn, if for different reasons. In their introduction to their study on ‘Quality TV’, Akass and McCabe point to how initially their concept was met with “misconceptions… charges of essentialism” and some observers describing ‘quality television’ as an “oxymoron”. Citing Brunsdon, they pointed to Bourdieu’s “contentious work (1986) on hierarchies of taste” (2007: 2) and suggest, as I do here, that what is really being played out where notions of ‘popular’ television and ‘quality television’ are concerned is the promotion of a certain social identity and legitimacy – a tendency to legitimise a particular cultural cache and varying degrees of knowledge. Yet both ‘popular’ and ‘quality’ as concepts still serve to describe the shared practice of watching television, and taste, therefore, is a difficult concept to measure. It is worth bearing in mind also that television as a medium, and in all its forms, until very recently was considered low-brow, not art, and tended not to be treated seriously as an academic discipline. This is the same position film studies found itself in many years ago, hence its early incarnation saw the subject yearning for respectability and credibility via a preoccupation with ‘art films’, semiotics, a French philosophical base, and notions of ‘quality’. But as my friend and colleague, Yannis Tsoumakis, has recently shown in his study of Teen movies, Hollywood Blockbusters, and more popular film texts in general, these genres (French) are just as valid and satisfying to view in a critical context. This is even more so where television is concerned. As Kuipers observes, “when applied to television, the classical distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture does not seem to make much sense” (2006: 359), especially when you consider television’s fragmented and eclectic mix of programmes and audiences. Yet television producers and television branding see advantages in perpetuating these distinctions.
Has television studies done something similar to early film studies in its focus on the television drama series? Serious academic books on Reality TV, as with the examples I have given here, suggests there is a resistance to going down this path, and the same can be said for the numerous and serious studies on television soaps that appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s – again, borne from Popular Culture studies. In fact, the study of Reality TV seems even more pressing due to their “flexibility of form”, that not only serves to describe the hybrid nature of contemporary television, but as Turner suggests, Reality TV offers ways and a means of “indigenizing even the most international of formats and genres” (2005: 415), and perhaps this is where popular television in the form of Reality TV is at its most interesting and revealing.
There are plenty of studies, most notably by Jean Chalaby and Andrea Esser, on the global TV format trade, for instance, which point to how these particular examples of popular television not only describe complex transnational and global flows, but bring together “a great deal of expertise” in their making (Chalaby, 2011: 293). This de-bounding, not only of national television, but of popular cultural practices through popular television formats is worth thinking about if only because it tells us something about the mechanisms behind taste cultures not only in television, but in terms of transnational networks of influence and knowledge. For me, the fact that the Real Housewives franchise has grown from being an American programme, situated in 10 different cities, to span the world, from Athens to Hungary, is far more interesting than the programmes themselves because it suggests a ‘World Television’ understood differently to notions of Scandi-Noir dramas et al. As Kuipers points out, taste “has to be understood not only as a pattern of preferences and aversion, but as a form of cultural knowledge”, and “Knowledge always precedes appreciation” (2006: 360).
Popular television is often touted as being less challenging to watch than ‘quality TV’; at least, that is what broadcasters and those in the production of ‘quality TV’ want audiences to believe, and in some respects they are right. Narrative complexity means we have to engage in more immersive viewing patterns. But this way of thinking also serves to promote ideas of exclusivity and good taste, and of course this way of thinking falls into the sort of trap broadcasters such as HBO want us to fall into. Ultimately, it allows broadcasters to charge higher prices for the privilege of being in that select club and as a consequence, a mutual partnership is created where audience and producer become arbiters of taste. Looking at it this way, whilst cultural knowledge may play a small part in the appreciation of ‘quality TV’, I think esoteric knowledge is what TV producers actually try to propagate where both ‘quality’ and Reality TV are concerned.
Ideas of taste have a commercial value in television.
And, as if to highlight how these and other ideas surrounding popular television in general, and Reality TV in particular, are often at the interface between concepts of high and low culture, rather than emblematic of one or the other, a recent article by Guy Redden (2017), Is Reality TV Neoliberal?, seems to suggest that what to many is seen as a frivolous, non-serious format, does prompt serious questions and research. For Redden Reality TV is a serious format to consider, and the ideas these programmes construct are not only a sign of the times, of their production and popular rise, but also an indicator of contemporary industry ideology. For Redden, Reality TV reveals how media industries “construct narrative worlds consistent with… a neoliberal political economy that has been marked by the decline of collective social support and rising inequality among citizens” (2007: 1). I would like to see Joey Essex just try to say neoliberal, but the point is that ‘quality TV’ is also a product of the same political economy and industry. There is a connection.
Redden’s neoliberal reading of Reality TV forces us to look again at Bignell’s 2005 observations of popular TV in general where he claims, justifiably, how “Television has long been regarded as a medium that has a special relationship with its viewers’ everyday lives.” (2005: 6). Some forms of Reality TV make great play at selling this special relationship to audiences, and as Redden observes, populist participatory media such as Reality TV often serves to create a “sustained intervention into the construction of people’s desires, cultural identities and expectations of the real” (2017). Perhaps this is why they are so eagerly and readily dismissed.
But ‘quality TV’, or more accurately, producers of ‘quality TV’ potentially attempt to do this also – albeit at a remove, aided by lavish sets and spectacular storytelling. Similarly, HBO’s ‘Cocksucker, motherfucker, tits’ strategy, as observed by Leverette and Ott (2009), highlights not so much a dedication to art and erudition, but an awareness that cable TV was not beholden to FCC rules and codes of conduct and could therefore offer something different to standard network TV fare. What they came up with, and what they identified quality audiences wanted was sex, scandal, violence, and profanity (as well as great drama of course). Sound familiar? Clearly, it is hard to suggest that these same elements are what audiences use to differentiate highbrow ‘quality TV’ from ‘lowbrow’ popular TV especially when a lot of Reality TV provides the same.
Therefore, swearing, sex, and violence in and of themselves are no indicators of taste; why else would the portrayal of a violent, trashy-but-aspirant, working-class family, with a propensity for crime, bling, swearing and conflict, and whose main character likes to talk about himself and his problems a lot, become one of the most critically acclaimed dramas in television history (The Sopranos)? But then social realism and reality are two very different things where art and television are concerned; one is a critical concept associated with art, the other is, well, Reality TV.
Of course, quality TV drama presents all of these aspects differently to Reality TV and in a way that we recognise as different. I don’t believe for one minute that some Italian-American New Yorker family has ever mistook The Sopranos for Reality TV. However, for all the allusions to gritty realism in The Sopranos, the reality of real life is just not escapist or exciting enough for some, and perhaps this is the point where questions of taste are concerned. Quality TV drama tends to filter out the banal and inconsequential (a key criticism of Reality TV) through spectacular storytelling, narrative spectacle, and through the use of well-known star actors. It is glamorous even when it is trying not to be and its allusions to everyday life and reality is an illusion. The ‘demotic turn’, a phrase coined by Graeme Turner (2006) to describe the production of the ‘ordinary’ in Reality TV, is unlikely to be employed in these respects because in television drama the ordinary has to be extraordinary. Yet the production of the ‘ordinary’ is worth considering where taste, value and legitimacy is concerned. Some contemporary ‘quality TV’ dramas do often try to emulate this ordinariness or verisimilitude to real life via a social realism aesthetic, and Reality TV, paradoxically, often tries to court the trappings of celebrity, stardom, melodrama and glamour, and when it does so it is very often found to be tacky, nouveau riche and arriviste. Just take a look at VH1’s recent Reality TV programme Mob Wives. By comparing both The Sopranos and Mob Wives, the question needs asking – is this art imitating life, or vice versa?
Redden’s observations on Reality TV should force us to look again at the relationship audiences have with ‘quality TV’ in general and popular television as a whole, because both occupy the same space of television and both are creations of a media industry who not only try to represent their target audience, but to construct it too.
The question to be asked here is similar to that asked by Kuipers in her study of television comedies in relation to ‘Television and Taste Hierarchy’ (2006); is ‘quality’ or highbrow television more legitimate than popular or so-called lowbrow television in terms of the production of knowledge? For Kuipers, because Reality TV and popular TV exists in the same space as highbrow ‘quality TV’ (something Netflix and others are changing), the legitimacy of so-called highbrow knowledge and culture is being contested or is “steadily decreasing” (2006: 377). For Kuipers, this may be a good thing because the legitimacy of certain kinds of knowledge is linked to hierarchies in society, hierarchies that are acted out and perpetuated on the small screen. However, there is a warning to heed. In all these respects, Redden’s neoliberal reading of Reality TV potentially serves to undermine Bignell’s understanding of the term ‘popular’ when applied to television; that “‘the popular’ also carries the meaning of a kind of production by ‘the people’ themselves, an organic culture which seems to conflict with the industrial, institutional and technological facts of television.” (2005: 6). In fact, as Bignell knows quite well, and as Turner points out with hos observations of the ‘demotic turn’ and the ‘production of the ordinary’, very little about television production – popular, Reality, or otherwise – is really organic or a product of the people at odds with industrial, institutional and technological processes.
You might ask why I am comparing the study of Reality TV to the study of complex ‘quality TV’, especially as I have already cited Geraghty’s common-sense observation that particular television categories should be judged on their own terms and by the type of aesthetics they are associated with. Well, it is related to the advice I tried offering to my students. Television programmes and genres exist within a wide, complex network and media landscape, and their connections and similarities are far greater than their separation and differences. Jason Mittell, in his now standard curriculum text on Complex TV (2012), pointed out as early as 2006 (The Velvet Light Trap) how narrative complexity, as “a distinct narrational mode”, along with ‘quality TV’, arose not only as a result of changing perceptions in the legitimacy of television as a medium (appreciation/taste), but also as a response to Reality TV’s emerging popularity, a popularity that saw it push ‘conventional’ scripted TV drama down the ratings. In his ‘historical poetic approach’ to television, narrative complexity was seen as offering something unique to fictional television and was also recognised as one of the limits of Reality TV. There is a connection in other words. Significantly, Mittell recognises that whilst ‘conventional’ (popular) and ‘complexity’ (quality) are not value-free descriptions, he does state that “complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed” (2006: 29). For Mittell innovations in media form are at “the nexus of a number of historical forces that work to transform the norms established with any creative practice” (2006: 29), and Reality TV, as much as complex ‘quality TV’ is but one example. Here is the point. Whilst we may teach television through discrete parts, genres, programmes, it is important that we show how these discrete parts exist alongside, within, and as part of a wider network, phenomenon, and experience. Reality TV is legitimate television to study.
Kenneth A Longden has lectured as part of the academic staff at Liverpool John Moores University in Media, Critical, and Creative Arts, and studied for a MPhil/PhD in Transnational Narratives at The University of Winchester. He is a Fellow HEA, and a Peer-Reviewer for various academic journals. He has been published by Intellect Books and Palgrave MacMillan, and writes on Popular Narrative, Film, Television, Fandom, and Popular Culture. He is currently lecturing at Salford University.
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