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How reality TV killed creativity in television

Contestants from the most recent series of Big Brother toast their success º but is that success killing TV creativity? AAP Image/Nine Network, Big Brother Publicity, Paul Broben

It might be hard to find two more laboured topics in the arts right now, but a good Google search reveals “creativity” and “reality television” are yet to go head to head in the same story. Here’s what’s missing in the respective debates.

Reality television now dominates Australian TV screens. While in 2014 only one scripted show INXS: Never Tear Us Apart made it into the top 20 most watched episodes (with reality and sport taking all other 19 positions), in 2013 reality made up 13 of the top 20 most watched episodes, alongside sport.

Mirroring the spread of reality across broadcast and cable in the US, which now devotes almost half of all programming to the booming genre (generating US$6 billion in annual revenue), its appeal is as strong as ever - or “in full flower, both as a creative force and a business” as the New York Times reported in 2011.

According to the world’s current “hero” of reality and creativity, Big Brother and The Voice creator Jon de Mol, “working on being creative in the TV world is endless. It never stops. It’s a challenge that never disappears.”

The rise of corporate creativity

The insidious rise of reality television – or perhaps better named, “corporate television” - can be marked against what British sociologist Thomas Osborne calls the “creative economy”, a permanent hurricane of creative chatter driven by a new kind of moral imperative, and one with potentially moronic consequences.

The ever-expanding creative industries now stretch across design, fashion, software production, video games, marketing, advertising, pop music, the performing arts, publishing, philosophy, publicity, education, neuroscience, prison rehabilitation and beyond.

A preview for the Australian franchise of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here.

Managers workshop their staff into more “creative” productivity, and the seriously creative (or at least the best at monetising the craft), work out how to stop consumers clicking skip on the YouTube commercial. The major advertising players such as Leo Burnett are now even recruiting poets and theatre artists instead of hard-nosed sellers for the purpose, so I hear.

Amid the frenzy, at the helm of the creativity cult, the liveliest genre on the set right now is combining the visceral impact of documentary with the story structure of scripted TV, and nailing “the hot-button cultural issues — class, sex, race –that respectable television rarely touches,” US reality producer Michael Hirschorn said in 2007. Its best performing formats: the bachelor, housewife, chef, renovator, talent sensation, duck hunter, swamp person, child pageant disaster and (an all-time favourite) “occupant of a house” – now occupant who watches TV - stir up the perfect mix of humiliation and Schadenfreude.

In Australia contestants can end up anywhere from broke and bullied to going blind and suicidal. In the US, wannabe stars will resort to alcohol-fuelled punch ups or birthing their own babies on TV. Having sex on camera became the standard, even old-hat, years ago.

Remember the Biggest Loser? AAP Image/Network Ten

Though it’s tempting to keep rehashing the widespread academic and other evidence of worker exploitation and stolen wages (US$40 million a year by New York based, non-scripted TV companies alone in 2013, according to the Writer’s Guild of America), pitifully cheap production values, links to mass plastic surgery, eating disorders and generally diminishing morality in audiences, “frankenbiting” (where dialogue is deceptively edited to create better stories), metadata surveillance, the impoverishment of public discourses and the fact the that the whole thing is predicated on being real when it is extraordinarily fake - there is another aspect to reality TV that makes it even worse.

The genre is also shrinking creativity.

Where have all the creatives gone?

First of all, it has all but wiped from the broadest entertainment platform, one of the oldest occupations in history, the working actor. Now that we’ve got desperados, trained professionals might as well go the way of the iPhone 5.

The surrounding artistic team? Restructured. Choreographers, lighting designers, sound engineers and costume people are given the US (or Dutch) patent and told to make it feel just the same.

Most crucially, the writer, who may have otherwise penned the next Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, The Three Sisters or The Simpsons now helps Kim Kardashian’s Klan as they kustomize peoples’ face, clothes, hair, job and social climbing privileges in exchange for credit card payments in a virtual Hollywood.

Keeping the Kardashian image intact. AAP Image/Paul Miller

Low art forms, from the bawdy to bear baiting to Puppetry of the Penis have always had a place in our cultures – but they hasn’t always dominated, less survived or defined eras as corporate television may well do of ours. Do we see really see today’s swamp people or karaoke singers who would be Leonard Cohens selling out the Drama Theatre in 400 years?


Why? Because creativity has become fashion, save for the essential surviving artists like: Bansky, Woody Allen or the Coen brothers as examples. In Thomas Osborne’s words, what we’re seeing is:

[the] endless repetition of permanent change under conditions of permanent imitation: production for the sake of production, “ideas” for the sake of “ideas” – and something which ultimately, perhaps precisely because of its character as a sort of compulsory heterodoxy, has conservative effects.

For philosopher Jeff Malpas, these conservative effects link creativity to corporate techno-capitalism – a mass wave of de-individualisation dressed up as control and liberty. Or in primetime terms: vote for the biggest loser to win a cheeseburger!

The point is, you take away the art – which is what corporate television has done – and you take away the stories that are really for the people. It’s a clever move to make artists look “out of touch” in the television space because artists - largely driven by what it means to be human, and most importantly, originality (certainly not by money) – write, direct and perform inconvenient truths. They’ve always been better at democracy than the politicians, which is no doubt why they need to be removed.

As creativity becomes confused with invention, imitation (or novelty at best) and is reduced to metadata captured through live-streamed barnyard sex and X-Factor applications - we forget that as Hegel after the renaissance and Aristotle of ancient Greece warned, art presents man with himself.

Assuming they were right we’d better lay off Kim Kardashian and the like for a while and vote for something else. Unless, that is, she’d like to have a go at reciting The Odyssey.

Read other articles in our Creativity series here.

Editor’s note: Carla will be answering questions between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Thursday March 12. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

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