On 25 February Balázs Boross will defend his PhD dissertation ‘Inside Interventional Television. Media rituals in the age of participation’. His dissertation focuses on reality shows as participatory spaces for ordinary people. Little is known about how and why people lend their lives to these television programmes. Balazs’s research reveals a diverse set of motivations and experiences, as well as several tactics that crews employ to streamline the performances of non-media professionals.
In the last decades, television has become something not only to watch but also to do: people in large numbers apply to be part of programmes focusing on self-improvement, conflict management, relationship advice or offering life-changing experiences in other ways. These programmes are often received controversially and criticized for being fake, voyeuristic or harmful to their participants.
Despite these debates, research into what happens behind the scenes is scarce and, in consequence, little is known about how and why people lend their lives to these programmes. What drives them to participate? How do they perform in front of a crew and an imagined public? And, more generally, what do such participatory practices tell us about the power of television in today’s thoroughly heterogenous media world?
In his research, Balazs combines content analysis with a series of interviews with participants and crew members of a variety of programmes. These programmes include the Dutch coming out programme ‘Uit de Kast’ and UK Channel 4’s disability dating show ‘The Undateables’.
The research reveals different reasonings for taking part in these shows. Uit de kast participants, for instance, generally apply to be part of the show because they consider the production as an authoritative and safe space: once it is filmed, you cannot procrastinate the act of coming out and most likely, your parents and friends will also react in a camera friendly way. At the same time, participation in certain programmes is also seen by participants as an opportunity to educate the audience. Undateables participants often care less about getting a date then sharing their perspective on the experience of living with disability.
The research also suggests that production workers often find it difficult to balance between participants` personal agendas and commercial demands. In situations when these interests get conflicted, they are more prone to rely on already established formulas and narratives. In this respect, reality participation is best approached as a modern-day ritual. The programmes create and impose recognizable patterns of ‘good’ behavior on their participants, and in doing so, they serve as testing grounds of contemporary social hierarchies and cultural values.
Balázs Boross: “My aim was to introduce nuance into popular assumptions about what participation in reality television ‘does’ to people; I also wanted to shift attention rather towards what the participants do with the possibilities of televisual visibility.”