In his discussion of forms unique to television, Raymond Williams notes the medium’s unique capacity to “enter a situation and show what is actually happening in it.” Editiorial choices by “directors, cameramen, and reporters” blur the boundary between factual report…and dramatic presentation.” This mingling of reality and fiction is both problematic and promising. Television can enter “areas of the immediate and contemporary public…and private action more fully and more powerfully than any other technology.”
Raymond Williams, in 1974, has predicted reality TV.
He briefly describes a certain serial, An American Family (1973) that is now regarded as the first true “reality TV” show. He describes how Californian families watched in amazement at the familiar made strange, and how this great “dramatic experiment” took advantage of the television camera’s role as a neutral observer. Without too much editing or scripting, producers could create a compelling and “true” portrait of the American family.
Reality TV has exploded within the last couple of decades, exploding in 2000 with Survivor and Big Brother. These were less “drama-documentary” and more “dramatic experiment”, though in each case, the “neutral” camera provided a unique perspective on the private moments of the participants. Raymond Williams’ “drama-documentary” has evolved into the modern “docudrama”. Many of the reality programs we’re familiar with fall within this category; they are often documentary style shows that capture often dramatic moments in the lives of ordinary–but more often, extraordinary–people. We are introduced to drastically different ways of living in shows like Sister Wives, 19 Kids and Counting, and Jon & Kate Plus 8. We escape our 9-5 jobs by following people on Deadliest Catch and Miami Ink. We downright gawk at the Real Housewives and Jersey Shore. TV seems to capture daily life in a way radio and cinema never could.
I’m not sure whether Williams would be delighted or appalled with how the drama-documentary has turned out. On one hand, I’m sure he would be amazed by the diversity of perspectives available to the average viewer at the click of their remote. Hundreds of reality shows (dozens on TLC alone…) mean that when we are bored of our own lives, we can live vicariously through another–whether they are trudging through a swamp, getting a fashion makeover in New York City, or participating in a toddler beauty pageant. On the other hand, I am sure that many shows have long since passed the line into “entertainment” rather than enlightenment. But even the fluffiest of reality TV still allows the viewer a look into another’s life–however strange, disturbing, or inconsequential it may be.