Reality TV is filling the schedules in 2017
MTV’s new reality offering is Spring Break With Grandad, which sees eight attractive young singletons head off to Cancun in Mexico for the “greatest vacation of their lives”. The catch? Their grandparents are coming along too.
The RTS spoke to the presenter of the show, Geordie Shore’s Gary Beadle, as well as Made in Chelsea’s Jamie Laing and TV executive Dom Bird about the popularity of the genre, and what comes next.
Explaining the massive popularity of MTV’s hit reality series Geordie Shore which began in 2011, Beadle explained that the show marked “the first time anyone had the bottle to go on TV and be honest about what is going on.”
“I think people could relate to it,” he added. “We’re being real. We’re being us.”
Made in Chelsea’s Jamie Laing echoed the sentiment: “you have to really be prepared to allow your life to be on camera.”
The success of the Channel 4 show, which is currently in its twelfth series, is as much due to the character’s relationships off-screen, as it is on. “Made in Chelsea isn’t like any other reality show” he says. “[We’ve] always been friends. We’ve always known each other. We’ve always hung out.”
“Chelsea was a huge risk” Laing explained. The show launched in 2011, when the UK was only just emerging from the 2008 economic crash, and the memory of that time was still fresh in the public’s memory. “The last thing you would expect that people would want to do was come back from their long days at work and then watch all these kids partying [and] drinking champagne. [But] people could relate to it because it was about relationships, about friendships.”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, everyone has the same issues and the same problems. I think that is why reality shows really work – because people can relate to it.”
"We're being real. We're being us."
For Geordie Shore’s Gary Beadle, that honesty came naturally.
The former tiler was scouted for the show on a night out in Newcastle, and he said signing up was a no-brainer. “I didn’t really care. I wasn’t aware of the camera. I thought, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to be myself. I don’t want to be anyone I am not.”
“To me, it’s an opportunity. If I was working as a tiler, I would get my wages on a Friday night and I would go out and do exactly what I am doing now.”
The show is not contrived, he says, and that honesty is what makes it so relatable.
Phebe Hunnicutt, VP, Content for Hayu, NBCUniversal’s reality TV subscription service, agrees. She gives the example of a recent storyline from NBC’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey, in which one of the female stars returns from prison. “That is the stuff of the trashiest tabloid,” she explained, “[but] we’ve seen a fantastic response: the sense of empathy for that family and what they are going through…
“You just watch it and you feel very moved and connected to the real people whose lives you have the privilege to watch unfold and get to be part of.”
However there is a cost to living in the spotlight, and both Laing and Beadle recognise the intrusiveness of the shows.
Beadle warned “people who watch the show are quite involved… If you have a new girlfriend, it’s not just like telling your mate. You’re introducing someone to everyone,” and the public can be judgemental.
“If I post a picture on Instagram, everyone will be commenting ‘You shouldn’t be with her. Get with [his former co-star and on-off girlfriend] Charlotte.’ I know where you are coming from because you have been with us for that long, but try and have a little bit of respect. It’s not nice. We’re quite thick-skinned anyway, but the new person – it’s quite a hard thing for them to deal with”
He remains stoical however, adding “It’s one of the prices that come with it I suppose.”
There will come a time, he says, when the show is no longer right for him. " I’m 28 now. I can’t be on Geordie Shore when I am 30 years old, going on booze cruises and having jagerbombs."
Made in Chelsea’s Laing disagrees. “Gary saying he’ll hang up his hat. There’s no way” he says. "“There’s this rumour in life where if you do a reality show then in order to get better things, you have to leave the show. No one does that!"
He loves the genre, however “it is very intrusive,” he admits. “You have to replay things and do things again which in life you kind of just want to brush under the carpet. Reality television makes you redo these things, so you have to be prepared for that, honest and completely open.”
Channel 4’s Head of Formats Dom Bird explained “It only works if somebody is happy to live their real life on screen, and that isn’t for everybody because that is the good bits and the bad bits and the upsetting bits.”
Successful reality shows, Bird concludes, do some of the same work as a documentary. He observes that “the things that have been successful are all bubbles. Probably all of them aspirational in certain ways, not to the same people, but probably quite aspirational.”
“I think that [the] TOWIE world is quite glamourous. The Made in Chelsea world is slightly other-worldly, but there is something glamourous and really distinct about it. And Geordie Shore is the same – they are worlds within worlds.
“I think where people have got it right is where you have found ‘tribes’ and it is a window onto different tribes.”
It is the intrusiveness that initially earned the genre a somewhat tawdry reputation. However Bafta wins for both Made in Chelsea and ITV’s The Only Way is Essex have done much to turn that around.
Speaking at an RTS Futures event last year, MTV’s Director of Commissioning and Development Craig Orr suggested that negative reaction comes from reality being the new kid on the block.
Dom Bird had no time for critics of the genre: “I have zero tolerance for the snobbishness some people have around [reality]. That snobbishness comes from people who the show isn’t even meant for.”
Technically, he said, the reality genre is unmatched in terms of storytelling. “When you’re dealing with real people and real lives, the skill of turning that into something that has the beats of a drama is incredibly difficult, and something that as a channel we couldn’t be prouder of.”
Orr echoed that sentiment, adding that reality “is some of the best TV on. It [has] better storytelling than a lot of documentaries I watch. Factual TV can be a lot lazier.”
Both agree that that snobbishness is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, pointing to Bafta wins, consistent ratings and a proliferation of examples of the genre across the schedules as just some of the indicators.
Recent viewing figures for Geordie Shore’s twelfth series revealed an average of 1.2m viewers per episode over the series, and Hayu’s Phebe Hunnicutt reported that 95% of women and a lower-but-significant percentage of men in the UK watch reality TV.
Hunnicutt added that with reality, “we have come to a place where we can see the great storytelling and the great personalities and the really captivating pieces for what they are. [Reality TV] is something you watch to interact with and discuss and debate and enjoy the same way we do with any television that we love.”
There does not seem to be a consensus on what is next for the genre. According to MTV’s Craig Orr, the genre has “a never-ending appetite for new characters with bigger personality traits.” He added “as long as it taps into real emotion, people will [will watch it]”
The enduring popularity of Channel 4’s First Dates – which recently received its first spin off First Dates Hotel - seems to fly in the face of this demand for bigger characters. Orr admitted “First Dates is lovely and cosy and the [viewers] really get behind the [couples].
Gogglebox, also on Channel 4 and one of the most watched and most loved reality shows on television, averaging 4.02m viewers for its recent seventh series, does not rely on shock value or salaciousness, instead prides itself on getting inside the living rooms of real UK households.
In an interview for The Evening Standard, Farah Ramzan Golant of All3Media explained the success of the show, “The show is about people’s lives, their relationships, their living rooms and the way children and parents talk about TV.”
Studio Lambert’s new offering, starting this week on BBC Two, Common Sense, is a show in the vein of Gogglebox, with regular people from all walks of life giving their take on the news of the day.
So whether we can expect a shift to the warm-hearted simplicity of Common Sense, or a continuation of the vibrant neon of shows like Geordie Shore and Spring Break with Grandad, remains to be seen. What is for sure is that 2017 will not suffer from a shortage of top quality reality TV.
Common Sense begins on BBC Two on tonight at 10pm.
Spring Break with Grandad begins later in the year on MTV.