I cannot count the number of times that I have said that I never want to talk about reality television ever again after having thought and written about it for so many years. Of course the genre never fails to surprise me, and move me in ways that I’m not quite prepared for, and just recently it really did get personal. I’ve been thinking about a specific experience of watching the Channel 4 series Undercover Boss and more lofty phenomenological questions around what we might call varying states of ‘televisual consciousness’ in relation to the different audience research projects in which I have been involved. We know television has always had a responsibility to tell a truth and that old phrase ‘window on the world’ attests to television’s duty to document and provide a way of ‘knowing’. Of course television does this by bringing the world out ‘there’ to the living room ‘here’. But what about when television tells us something directly about our personal lives that we did not know and were not prepared for? Is this a changing or ongoing set of relations which we are easily embracing?

Of course there are numerous ways in which television’s narratives, fiction and non-fiction, inform our sense of knowing ourselves and our worlds. The work undertaken by Hazel Collie as part of our AHRC ‘History of Television for Women’ project is showing how television evokes the biographical details of the everyday, of personal memories, familial relationships and settings in key stages of the life course. There is also a conscious rendering of television as an institution of memory, not only by television itself, as Amy Holdsworth (2011) shows, but also by other institutions. Recently, Tim O-Sullivan and I visited the National Space Centre in Leicester and, as we might have expected, television footage of space exploration was a significant feature, but the staging of a nineteen sixties living room around a television set showing the moon landings, clearly reconstructed the extra terrestrial as terrestrial, as familiar and homely and part of domestic life. So television is afforded a role as our biographical consciousness; one which can help us to re-tell events in the world at large, as well as in the private world within. It is a filter and a trigger, and I have always found television reassuring in those ways.


But television’s collision of the public and private sometimes renders the viewing experience uncanny, and one such experience for me came when I was watching Undercover Boss on Channel 4 on the 23rd July this year. I was tuning in because I knew the ‘bosses’ of the franchised hairdressing chain that was the subject of that week’s undercover experiment. Firstly, I had that ‘oh I’ve been there’ quite excited feeling when you see a place on television that you know, when television evokes something beyond the image itself to your own experience. Vivien Sobchack (1999) refers to this as ‘looking through’ as well as ‘looking at’, characteristic of the home video, which Beverley Skeggs and I used to describe some of our audience reactions to reality television.

I saw some of the streets of my home town and then bizarrely saw a friend of mine pull up in his car and go to work and perform his concerns over falling profits in the business. One of the opening scenes featured a receptionist in a hairdressing salon who I have been out with numerous times as part of a group of friends (I still in live in the small town I grew up in). I could not get used to the familiar (homely) faces and places of people I know as part of the also familiar yet televised structure of the format. The words uncanny or unheimlich do not quite seem to capture what I was feeling. It was not like watching any kind of television I had watched before; quite simply I could not relax. It started to feel more like those moments when listening to myself on a research tape and cannot quite believe the pitch and accent of my voice. In some ways it was like watching a home video in that I was constantly ‘looking through’, conjuring what I already knew about these people and these places, but this was also not a place or space I have ever actually known, as I have never experienced Undercover Boss. I was more than usually uncomfortable and anxious for the participants as they were subject to the conceits of reality television’s unfolding narrative frame.

But with so much reality factual programming surely more and more of us must be feeling these feelings now and are perhaps growing accustomed to them? Someone in all of the groups from our last audience research project had some kind of backstage knowledge of a show, seen a garden makeover, known a participant, maybe even been approached to be part of a programme. And just as I was trying to get used to the state of consciousness I was in watching this programme broadcast (and it did get easier re-running it again to write this blog), Undercover Boss took another more personal turn. The driving narrative of the show was to find out which were the underperforming salons and the voice over kept repeating that the hairdressing group ‘cannot afford to keep supporting weak salons’. It transpired that the person who runs the weakest salon is my cousin. I knew she was a hairdresser but I didn’t know that she was a franchisee of the chain. The close up on her familiar face as she struggled to explain how difficult it was to keep going, as she talked about debt collectors and stress was almost unbearable. All information I knew nothing about although I knew her better as a child. I could see each familiar gesture in the close up and squirmed with her as she was called into the boss’s office and the ‘undercover’ process was revealed. (Is this just the pinnacle of what melodrama can do and do we like it?) The bosses offered her a lifeline around a new marketing strategy and afterwards she performed to camera her apparent ‘delight’ about the new opportunity. However, it was obvious that the narrative of the programme could not contain the difficult truth about her financial situation and I felt sad and also guilty, for not knowing her better, for watching, for wondering how I approach the bosses, my friends…

One challenge in audience research for me is to capture the changing states of consciousness which may shift from one televisual moment to the next. Ruth McElroy (2011) has done some interesting audience research watching the reality programme Coal House with the participants themselves. But I wonder if we can really capture how watching parts of your own life through another format makes us feel, and will these feelings alter the more we get used to it? Maybe the YouTube generation are now really at ease seeing familiarity broadcast, but I am just not there yet, are you?

Helen Wood is Professor of Media and Communication at De Montfort University in Leicester. She has published Talking With Television (2009) University of Illinois Press, with Beverley Skeggs Reality Television and Class (2011) BFI Palgrave and Reacting to Reality Television (2012) Routledge. She is editor of European Journal of Cultural Studies and is currently working on the AHRC project ‘A History of Television for Women’.