Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Reality TV - Survivor: Samoa and Consumption

Bill Nichols distinguishes between documentary and reality TV in one key way: whereas documentary seeks to represent the surrounding real world, reality TV ‘has a vested interest in subsuming everything beyond itself into its own support system of circulating exchange values’ (‘Reality TV and social perversion’, p. 396). In other words, reality TV is all about television and consumption and nothing else.  In relation to one or more programs, do you agree with this critique?

Reality TV has always had mass consumption as its primary aim.  According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, reality TV has been around “in some shape or form” (2007, p.26) since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the “success of the European Big Brother and then Survivor for the format to become a dominant one” (Branston & Stafford 1996, p.473).  The term Reality TV was first used in the early 90s “to describe the particular genre of magazine-format programmes” (Dovey 2008, p.134) and as a genre, has often been accused of “pandering to the lowest common dominator in parading the less pleasant side of contemporary life as voyeuristic spectacle” (Casey et al. 2008, pp.230-231).  The popularity of the genre is not limited to audiences however.  The comparatively low costs in producing reality TV makes it a popular genre with producers, with the principal costs of “recording technologies and limited set construction” (O’Shaughnessy and Stadler 2008, 327) being offset by not having to pay actors or screenwriters: “While an hour of prime-time reality programming for a major network costs about $700,000 to produce, the average scripted drama can cost $1 million to $2 million an hour” (Rendon 2004, para.8).  The name of the genre is considered a misnomer by many due to the extent of construction involved as the programmes deliberately distort the reality they purport to show in order to entice the audience.  Survivor is a programme that has a proven record of appealing to audiences with it being one of the most successful reality TV programmes rarely “dipping out of the top ten highest rated shows” (Jenkins 2006, p.25) in its first eight seasons.  The production costs for Survivor rose from $1 million to $1.5 million per episode after the first session, making it “probably the most expensive reality show to date” (Magder 2004, pp.140-141), showing a commitment to production values missing in some reality TV programmes.  This increase in production costs would not have occurred if the programme did not have “a vested interest in subsuming everything beyond itself into its own support system of circulating exchange values” (Nichols 2000, p.396).  Therefore Bill Nichols’ premise is one that I agree with, and in this essay I will examine how Survivor: Samoa has been constructed in order to engage the audience into continued consumption through analysis of genre, narrative, participants, role of the host, setting, camera work, sound and editing.  I will conclude by exploring the appeal of viewing Survivor: Samoa. 

A clear example of a hybrid genre, reality TV has splintered into many sub-genres.  Ouellette and Murray divide the sub-genres into the following categories such as gamedocs, dating, makeover and lifestyle, docosoaps and talent contests (2009, p.5).  As a hybrid, it blends elements of “documentary, soap opera and quiz shows” (Hartley 2002, p.197) but has “become a distinct TV genre” (Ellis 2007, p.124) in its own right with “its own plot patterns, narrative structures, conventions, and character types” (Newcomb 2004, p.427).  Mark Burnett, executive producer of Survivor, describes the show as a “dramality…a mixture of drama and reality” (CNN 2000, online).  Survivor: Samoa contains all the conventions of reality TV – ordinary people as contestants; no script; live and edited footage; voiceover narration; stock characters; direct address confessionals; and an omniscient camera.  For Casey et al., “one of the key elements of reality programming is the juxtaposing of the ‘everyday’ and the banal with the unexpected and the bizarre” (2008, p.229), and while Survivor: Samoa can hardly be described as ‘everyday’, tribal life relies on a routine resembling a home-life, albeit without comfort or the support of loved ones.  Mittell (2004) describes the genre as being “constructed through production and reception processes” (cited in Hill, 2008, p.137), which is exemplified through the “painstaking selection of the ‘candidates’... [and] the manipulation of images by the production team” (Watson 2008, p.434).  The ramification of these production processes is consumption of the product.

Although reality TV gives the illusion of truth, the programmes are constructed in terms of narrative and character.  Reality TV may present “a compelling mix of apparently ‘raw’, ‘authentic’ material” (Dovey 2008, p.134) but what annoys a lot of people according to Dunkley (2000) “is the pretense that it is some sort of genuine social investigation and not just a cynical drive for ratings and profits” (cited in Palmer 2002, p.185).  For Jeremy Orlebar reality TV is “like drama in the way it is edited for interpersonal drama” (2010, online) which allows for both character development and identification.  According to Jay Renfroe, a partner in Renegade 83, ''Reality TV is really written in post-production…storytellers are the producers and the editors” (cited in Rendon 2004, para.11) providing the narrative arc.  One of the pivotal aspects of reality TV is the unpredictability – because it is unscripted, nobody knows what is going to happen.  While there are blindsides on Survivor: Samoa, the audience is privy to what is happening through fly-on-the-wall camera footage of the strategizing in the episode, however this still creates tension. Survivor: Samoa follows the same narrative structure each week with a review of the previous week and revisiting unresolved issues before heading into the reward challenge, the elimination challenge and finally the tribal council. According to Troy DeVolld, the elimination process needs to be evident as “viewers will tune out quickly if they can’t follow the logic behind who stays and who gets sent home” (2011, p.28).  Being able to understand the reasoning behind elimination ensures loyal spectatorship, as the audience feels compelled to watch every week in order to follow the narrative.  There are two hooks written into the narrative of each Survivor: Samoa episode.  At the beginning of the episode a voiceover finishes the previous week’s highlights by asking, “who will be voted off tonight?” which creates curiosity. In addition, at the end of the episode, the teaser for the following week’s programme entices the audience by showing carefully chosen snippets of dialogue and action.  These hooks follow “the cliff-hanger format of ongoing storylines” (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler 2008, p.326) which is used to ensure the audience remains loyal. 

Those wishing to participant in reality TV are selected for their ability to create dramatic impact.  The combination of participants is cast “in a manner intended to ignite conflict and dramatic narrative development” (Ouellette & Murray 2009, p.3), and while it is important that contestants are seen as ‘ordinary’ by the audience, there is an emphasis on outgoing personality types.  The producers of Survivor “claim to get something in the neighborhood of 65,000 self-made audition tapes each season” (The Reality of Reality, Bravo Networks, 2003, cited in Collins 2008, p.100), and after the first selections are made the producers “cast the applicants into predictable ‘types’ and as the series repeats the new players learn to perform the roles that get media attention” (Collins 2008, p.100), for example Richard Hatch (season 1), and Russell Hantz (season 19).  Because “real people are constituted as repeat performers for the length of the series” (Collins 2008, p.101) the audience forges a relationship with them and watches to either support their quest for supremacy or to hope for their downfall: “The aim is generally to select participants whose personalities will attract viewer interest – sympathetic or critical – and to maximize the potential for dramatic interaction” (Williamson 2012, p.5).  According to Chalaby, Survivor’s revolutionary idea was its elimination procedure – getting contestants to vote each other out of the game as opposed to the audience – which provides the core to the show, determining “who form[s] alliances and conspire[s] against each other, delivering drama and tension on a daily basis” (Chalaby 2011, p.299).   Ramona Gray, a contestant on season 1, shared her experience of the application process on Larry King Live describing the various ‘rounds’ of interviews narrowing down the applicants from 6,100 to 800 and finally down to 48 (CNN 2000, online).  In Survivor: Samoa there is some variety with the age and ethnicity of the contestants; however the majority of people are young, white and good-looking.  The effort put into choosing the right combination of people for the cast directly relates to audience loyalty to the programme. 

A crucial role in reality TV is that of the host.   All of the hosts on reality TV programmes are good-looking, nice people.  This has a two-fold effect – it provides a stable element for contestants and is a contributing factor in attracting an audience.  In Survivor: Samoa, Jeff Probst, encourages the competition between contestants and during tribal counsels, steers the audience towards the interpersonal drama through his questioning.  He tries to remain neutral, objective but not distant and aloof” (CNN 2000, online) so the audience can respond to their favourite, not his.   At the end of each tribal counsel Probst makes a general comment on the state of tribe and suggests they consider their position in the bigger picture.  This encourages repeat viewing due to curiosity whether Probst’s predictions will come true.    

The setting for a reality TV programme can range from a purpose-built or adapted studio set to an exotic locale.  On Survivor, the point of taking people out of their comfort zones is to see how a group of strangers interact as they live together for a period of time.  While the choice of locations is impressive from a touristic point of view, as a Survivor contestant, they can be hostile places.  As a location Samoa puts the contestants to the test, especially with regard to food, which directly relates to how contestants perform in the challenges.  The food challenge in Survivor: Samoa, seafood Samoan Smoothies, utilises local products but also attracts the audience due to the torturous nature of having to drink the concoction.  This contributes to tension within the tribe for those who cannot comply, and in addition with food as the prize, the competition between tribes intensifies.   In Survivor: Samoa, the weather played a pivotal role as it rained on and off from day 10 to day 15 (episodes 4-6) which not only dampened the spirits of the contestants but also changed the way the game was played in that to avoid the rain people had to shelter together which limited the amount of strategizing that could be accomplished.  The environment is used as a background to confessionals, with the contestant surrounded by lush native bush or alone on a pristine beach.  Framing the contestant within locale highlights the binary opposition of exotic/familiar, which creates interest, but also curiosity with regard to any preconceived notions of the dangers of such an exotic location. 

The principal camera work in Survivor: Samoa involves close ups, medium shots, and establishing shots.  The close ups are used to show reactions which allows the audience to put themselves in the contestants position.   The use of establishing shots is not only to highlight the idyll of the exotic locale but also to present the perils of the environment.  These establishing shots are particularly important to contrast the situation of the tribe that has lost a challenge with the winning tribe when they have been transported to another setting, whether it is a pirate ship, Samoan village, or waterfall.  Night vision is used frequently to add realism by showing that the contestants are under constant surveillance.  Perhaps the most indicative camera work associated with reality TV is that of the fly-on-the-wall camera techniques and confessionals.  Many of the fly-on-the-wall shots are framed from a low angle to indicate the secrecy of conversations and to show the status of the contestant.  Russell Hantz, the dominant player in Survivor: Samoa, is often framed in a position of power through a low angle while the contestants on the periphery are framed from a slightly higher angle.  Dialogue is filmed either over-the-shoulder or with shot-reverse-shots to show reactions.  Most of the confessionals in Survivor: Samoa are deep focus close ups which frame the contestant within the idyllic environment.  This not only enables the audience to concentrate on what is being said, but it also provides contrast when the occasional confessional is filmed in shallow focus.   Interestingly only Russell Hantz is filmed using shallow focus, which indicates his importance as he takes precedence over the environment connoting his control of the game.

Survivor: Samoa makes effective use of non-diagetic sound to set the mood and pace of the narrative.  The music reflects the action, building for moments of tension and subsiding while providing background to underscore dialogue.  There are two pieces of music that are used in each series – the introductory theme and the music used at tribal council.  However, the theme music has been given a local feel by adding a sentence in Samoan at the beginning.  All the other music utilizes Samoan instrumentation and rhythm by incorporating drumming and Samoan chanting, contributing to the ‘otherness’ of the location.  The music punctuates the tension in the challenges and tribal council, ebbing and flowing in order to build suspense and create a hook for the audience. Voiceover is used during the confessionals to “set the emotional tone and provide expository transitions” (Mittell 2006, p.37).   While a cast member is directly addressing the camera, the footage cuts to images of the person being spoken about.  These voiceovers are particularly important at the beginning of the season before the audience is familiar with the contestants.

Reality TV is a highly edited genre.  The editing of Survivor: Samoa is similar to that of a drama as the choices made have been done so to develop the narrative and explore character.  The live footage during the Reunion episode (episode 16) gives the programme a degree of unpredictability but is not as exciting as the edited footage used in previous episodes.  According to Rendon, “Most of the work occurs after the cameras are put away” (2004, para.10), confirming the degree of editing used.  Survivor: Samoa was shot between mid-June and mid-July, but did not air on CBS until mid-September.  The two months between shooting and airing are spent editing the most exciting footage into scenes “that drive the story forward” (DeVolld 2011, p.86).  Another indication as to the amount of editing involved in Survivor: Samoa is the fact that although contestants are being filmed continuously, an episode lasts for one hour.  This verifies the amount of footage sacrificed to propel the narrative “forward in a compact and effective way" (DeVolld 2011, p.83).  Interestingly, even though there is a copious amount of footage, shots are often repeated.  For example in episode 2, the same footage of Ben chopping wood is used twice.  This is done for narrative purposes – it is important to keep the narrative developing but also to provide continuity.  Survivor: Samoa makes use of both slow and fast paced editing.  The confessionals are often long takes to show reactions, while the challenges are fast paced to enhance the excitement and suspense.  During confessionals, the contestant’s diatribe is interspersed with footage of another contestant, who is unaware they are being spoken about.  For Newcomb, “such uses of editing to construct the sense of a sequence are powerful devices” (2004, p.417) as it creates tension and contributes towards developing the plot, encouraging further consumption from the audience who will want to see the outcome of the confessional tirade.  According to DeVolld, “Story producers need interview bites that tie it all together and cover anything that might not have been caught on camera” (2011, p.68) in order to keep the audience abreast with the many narrative arcs.  Cross-fades are utilized during tribal council to cut between the person voting and those waiting.  Due to the unscripted nature of the programme, there is always the chance for a blindside at elimination and crossfading between the contestants builds tension and reinforces the unpredictability of the game which is a major attraction for the audience. 

While the pleasure obtained from watching reality TV differs for the audience, the voyeuristic pleasure of watching is undeniable.  Nichols describes the viewers of reality TV as being akin to “cyborg collaborators” (2000, p. 396) robotically watching, addicted to the unpredictability. The addition of using ‘ordinary’ people ensures a degree of recognition and/or identification with contestants, and knowledge “that the individual on the screen could be us” (Palmer 2002, p.300).  The humiliation of contestants in order to provide conflict is also a contributing factor to repeat viewing: “it is torture for the gratification of the viewing public, or, more precisely, in the hope of ratings and their associated advertising revenue” (Brenton & Cohen 2003, p.112).  There is a sadistic pleasure knowing that the contestants have signed up for the humiliation. 

The uses and gratifications theory of spectatorship recognizes that “the audience has a complex set of needs which it seeks to satisfy in the mass media” (Fiske 1990, 151).  McQuail, Blumler, and Brown (1972) identified four needs an audience endeavours to satisfy: diversion, personal relationships, personal identity and surveillance.   Survivor provides a diversion to the audiences “own lives and problems” (Roberto 2002, para. 12) by building tension and including hooks to keep them watching, aiming to overwhelm them “not with narrative or history, but with physical stuff and frenetic action” (Caldwell 1995, p.193).  Survivor: Samoa allows personal relationships to develop through establishing a sense of community.  The ‘watercooler’ effect is a strong motivator for watching: “If all your friends saw a programme and you did not, you feel temporarily excluded from their group” (Fiske 1990, 154).  The personal relationship factor also includes the participatory aspect of voting.  While Survivor: Samoa doesn’t involve audience participation to the same level as other examples of reality TV, the audience does get to vote for whom they think played the best game in the Reunion episode.  Allowing the audience to determine “the actual fate of another” (Palmer 2002, p.303), while not a prominent part of Survivor: Samoa only occurring in the final episode, encourages “a sense of audience engagement and agency and, by extension, create a loyal community” (Griffen-Foley 2004, p.544) of viewers.  Personal identity is the reason behind casting ordinary people as the tribe members on Survivor: Samoa as it is easier to identify with ordinary people than celebrities.    Laura Mulvey believes the “curiosity and the wish to look intermingle[s] with a fascination with likeness and recognition” (1992, p.749).  For her, “narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen” (1992, p.750).  Identification with those on Survivor: Samoa is a powerful factor in the audience’s willingness to consume: “You have to watch all the way to the end, as nothing can be taken for granted until the final vote” (DeVolld 2011, p29).  The category of surveillance applies to all reality TV programmes, Survivor: Samoa included.  Surveillance is achieved to get information over and above what is made available directly to the camera.  Survivor: Samoa provides the audience with opportunities to gratify their needs through diversion, personal relationships, personal identity and surveillance.   

Reality TV is a genre that “has a vested interest in subsuming everything beyond itself into its own support system of circulating exchange values” (Nichols 2000, p.396).  Survivor: Samoa blends elements from other genres, particularly documentary and soap opera, by incorporating narrative development, character identification and hooks to ensure repeat viewing.   The editing ensures a drama-like narrative, which the production elements of sound and setting help to guarantee.  The choice of ordinary people as contestants attracts the audience, as identification is available which equates to the forging of relationships over the season.  While the audience has various reasons for watching Survivor: Samoa, the programme is designed to satisfying the multitude of needs the audience may have to ensure they remain loyal to the programme and watch to the end.  Reality TV is constructed for consumption.  Its prime objective is not just to attract an audience, but to keep them enthralled.  This is achieved through the choice of contestants, the host, setting, camera work, sound and editing. 

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