Structured Reality or Manipulated Illusion? | Carol Phelan


Based on the hit US phenomenon Jersey Shore, the notoriously glamorous and lively city of Newcastle became the tramping ground for a gang of tanned and buffed individuals in May 2011, all ready for unadulterated partying in their home turf. MTV cameras catch all the action as they work during the day for Boss Anna’s promotions company and then get their tears, tantrums and ‘tash on’ at night. ‘Audiences have been hooked on the show,’ said MTV in a statement. ‘It has become the highest-ever rated series on MTV.’

Initially, Geordie Shore came under fire for the way it portrays the city of Newcastle. The local tourism board said it relied on ‘outdated stereotypes’ and had provoked a ‘fierce reaction’ among locals. Some Geordies do actually wear coats, for example. Nevertheless, Geordie lingo such as ‘oot on the lash’, ‘whey aye’ (yes), ‘howay’ (come on), ‘gan doon toon’ (going down town) and ‘worldie’ (classy lady) continues to be brought to the masses and tourism to the area has increased exponentially.

The larger-than-life lads and lasses were put to work making cocktails, running bar crawls and hosting limousine bus parties in the fifth season of the show across the wilds of Europe’s top stag and hen destinations (Amsterdam, Prague, Barcelona and some ski resort in France). The sixth season is even leading them to Sydney. These Geordies are viewed as being out for a good time and having an appetite for life. Some people just do not think they do it in the most sophisticated of ways. Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah said it was ‘bordering on pornographic’ and that she would ‘be raising questions in Parliament because [she thinks] there should be a limit on how much alcohol a broadcaster can pour down the throats of young people to provoke sensational acts.’

Carol4 (hmmmmmme)Reality television started life with fly-on-the-wall documentaries in the early 1970s with Craig Gilbert’s US series An American Family(1973). At the time, this format felt thrillingly fresh and intimate and quickly grew popular. Over the years, however, viewers got bored with it and thrill-seeking TV producers realised they needed to spice it up. Enter Big Brother, and hundreds of similar honestly deceptive shows, which placed its subjects in a heightened version of reality by cooping them up in a fish tank (that Scramble and Egg would be proud of) and poking them with metaphorical sticks to produce sought-after reactions. The Big Brother House is the whole world of show and there are rules which must be followed.

All reality shows are structured in some way. Dragon’s Den, for example, is an artificial environment in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas. However, The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore represent the new televisual trend that has taken off – ‘hyper-reality TV’. This started in the US with two hugely successful MTV series, Laguna Beach (2004-6) and The Hills (2006-10). In the iconic final scene of the latter, Kristin Cavallari gets into a waiting car destined for the airport. Brody Jenner is left behind at the Hollywood Hills, waving goodbye. The camera pans out to show the entire production, including crewmembers and cameramen. The producers deliberately left fans questioning the veracity of the events they religiously watched unfold over six seasons.

The general rules of engagement are that the producers take real people (after a period of scouting and casting for these non-actors), and place them in an environment in which the narratives and emotional contexts of their lives will be played out. A certain amount of choreographing, scripting and re-taking are part and parcel with the real life dimension. Tony Wood, creative director of The Only Way is Essex and Geordie Shore, has a background in drama and soap operas. His initial pitch was to chronicle a community through a variety of different platforms. Fictional narratives and reality TV typically do not go hand in hand, but the next progression was to try and combine these genres to try and be the next big thing. Tony wanted to package emotional truth in such a way that it has all the attributes of those programmes that people become addicted to. The viewing figures speak for themselves as having more than one million is a huge audience for a digital channel. They take flight on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which are alive with talk of these compelling shows. Serious drama does not trend as much. The producers purport to be following them as they go about their real lives, but the stars are no longer normal people as soon as season one of the car-crash TV has aired. They become celebrities overnight and are going to the BAFTAS to pick up their awards.

Jade Goody and Farrah Fawcett practically died on TV and One Born Every Minute lets us see the joys of giving birth in a whole new gruesome way. Sir Michael Parkinson wrote that Goody had become property of the media ‘to be manipulated and exploited till the day she died’ and branded her ‘the perfect victim of our times’. However, a spokesperson from Cancer Research UK commented on Goody’s long-lasting legacy of raising awareness of cervical cancer and the importance of screening checks because of her brave, open and high profile battle with the disease. The Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, said Jade Goody’s family can be ‘extremely proud’ of her.

Carol3A friend and I holidayed in New York for a few days before Christmas 2011. It was my first time in the Concrete Jungle and I wanted to walk across the avenues and soak it all in. Fionna had no interest in discovering the amazing architecture of Wall St., and in return for her entertaining my to-do list, I had to trek with her to the Jersey Shore. It was a ghost town (given the time of year I assume), but we found one diner that was open. The owner told us that the cast of Jersey Shore had been filming promos for the new season in that very diner the day before. Fionna had a breakdown on the spot. A taxi-driver brought us to the Shore Store, showed us the house in which the Guidos live and Oprah Winfrey’s holiday home, so all was not lost. A month later, I watched a Jersey Shore marathon for the first time and immediately understood the obsession. The likes of The Valleys or Geordie Shore are even better simply because the behaviour of the stars is more outrageous. I have seen crazier antics on certain nights out I have been on but the Geordies are willing to get ‘mortal’ and lose their dignity on TV for the entire world to see. Therefore, as long as impressionable children do not watch it, Geordie Shore cannot really be labelled as a bad influence.

Gaz and co party for a living – which has its pros and cons – but they are making a lot more money than the majority of their horrified and appalled critics. How long their fame will last after the lifetime of the show is another question, but I highly doubt the fact that they had drunken exploits and got naked on TV will come against them in later life, even though they all probably aspire to be accountants and solicitors. ‘Hmmmmmmme’.

I can forget about my own life and harmlessly live vicariously through them for an hour. When Gary picked Charlotte up and kissed her at the end of season four, I even shed a tear. The only part that ruined it for me was when I started following them on Twitter and saw how they are all shamelessly plugging their own fashion lines and protein shakes. Ironically, that made it a little bit too real.