TV viewing has become more important during the pandemic, but a sense of shame still lingers around it. Even TV scholars still use the term ‘guilty pleasures’ to describe their enjoyment of a particular reality TV format or even of series which attract some of the biggest viewing audiences like Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing with the Stars outside the UK). Some even call comfortable dramas like Death in Paradise or Bridgerton their ‘guilty pleasures’. Such television still attracts the same negative labels (‘unchallenging’, ‘low-brow’) that were given to its antecedents in the 1950s.
I remember the pleasure my father had in Take Your Pick or Double Your Money on the newly opened ITV, which featured ordinary people like him taking on minor tasks in a good natured way. His life was not an easy one, marked by a childhood spent mostly in an isolation hospital for tuberculosis patients which left him with a permanent disability. So as I child I understood the consolation and inclusion that such programmes brought him. They were a source of comfort precisely because they were ‘unchallenging’ for someone whose everyday life brought plenty enough challenges.
Consolatory entertainment is a better term for such programming. There is consolation in the simple pleasures of ordinary conversation, shared enjoyment and of laughing together that underpins the success of panel games, quiz shows and even celebrity chat shows. This is what Paddy Scannell identified as being purposeless entertainment which is ‘relaxed and sociable, shareable and accessible, non-exclusive, equally talkable about in principle and practice by everyone’. The importance of consolatory entertainment lies in its very purposelessness, which marks it out from the entertainment that seeks to challenge. It exists to confirm our common humanity, our ability to share a joke, to chat about trivia, to get on with each other. In the isolating times of the pandemic, it is scarcely surprising that shows like like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and The Great British Bake Off drew in their “best audiences in years” on broadcast TV in the UK. Consolatory entertainment confirms the very values that hold us together, in opposition to the often raucous and divisive forums of social media.
It is time to shed the sense of guilt around such programming and begin to understand it for what it is, and how it works. Beyond the panel games and chat shows, consolatory entertainment formats often feature people facing challenges which enable them to discover everyday talents they didn’t know they had, for dancing or baking, or trading in antiques. Often framed as competitions, who wins is less important than the togetherness and mutual support shown through the process, and the unlikely friendships that result. There is a thriving international market for such challenge-based formats, which are remade according to the same basic pattern but featuring citizens of each country. The sense of connection and locality provide an intimate connection between viewers and the people on the screen.
There is a strong ritualistic aspect to such programmes. The format is nearly the same every week, with the same narrative inevitability (a contestant will be eliminated) and the same flourishes (repeated music stings and catch-phrases). Each format is a theme of which each episode is a variation. In classical music theme and variation is an important feature, but for consolatory TV, repetitive forms are precisely what lead to its low estimation. Perhaps it is the amount of time that is required to ‘get into’ the format and appreciate each variation. This does not appeal to those with busy target-driven lives, but for many others it is a source of comfort and the means by which sharing and discussion can take place. It is not unlike football in this respect: the form is the same, but what matters are the details, what to the uninitiated seem minutiae. Football’s rituals and repetitions are more acceptable in our culture than those of consolatory TV. Football serves the same purpose of asserting sociality whilst avoiding conflict, providing excitement and a largely good natured tribalism around an essentially purposeless activity. Yet unlike football, a taste (let alone a need) for consolatory TV has not yet shaken off its moral opprobrium.
This may be because not all consolatory TV is cosy and reassuring. The equivalent of football hooligans exist in the forms of consolatory TV too, in the morally dubious freakshows of some reality TV. Some people find consolation in the misfortunes of others. There may be a legitimate consolation in the hubris of the over-confident, but some reality shows go far beyond that. As some behaviour on social media demonstrates, there are those citizens who find consolation in the simple spectacle of others suffering far more than they do. TV has had its fair share of such shows, but recently, ITV was forced to cancel The Jeremy Kyle Show, which had made a spectacle for daytime audiences of goading individuals into family confrontations over an astonishing 14 year run. Perhaps this was a late-dawning recognition that not all consolatory entertainment is acceptable. Certainly, the rules governing the appearances of non-celebrities on TV have been rewritten as a result of recent scandals. But it is still easy enough to find the US equivalents rerunning on Freeview channels. The public shaming associated with shows like Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle or the humiliations that can be meted out to contestants on Love Island, provide the simple spectacle of the suffering of others. There are those who, especially at times of stress, find consolation in the shaming and suffering of others.
But overall, the importance of consolatory TV lies in its affirmation of social connection and togetherness and its reassertion of the familiar and everyday. During the pandemic, this has become an even more important resource for many people. Consolatory TV can embody positive values, as The Great British Bakeoff proves. It can even be used to challenge attitudes as with the same-sex casting of Nicola Adams and Katya Jones in the last run of Strictly Come Dancing. The importance of consolatory TV lies in its affirmation of social connections and common humanity, the true purpose behind its seeming purposelessness.
John Ellis is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He led the ADAPT project on ‘how TV used to be made’, funded by the European Research Council. He co-edited Hands On Media History (2020) with Nick Hall, and is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation(Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions(1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of Learning on Screen and an editor-in-chief of VIEW, the online journal of European television history and culture. His publications can be found HERE.