Tube Talk: Watch Or Be Watched
8 May 2002
Why do we watch reality TV? For the same reason that dogs lick their balls - because we can. And there sure is a lot of it around, possums. "Big Brother", "Temptation Island", "City Beat", that dreadful gardening show with Lyn of Tawa.... Forget scripts and actors - all you need for compulsively watchable TV these days is a Steadicam with a good zoom lens, and people in bikinis who don't mind crying on-camera.
In the naive, paranoid 20th century, we thought voyeurism was evil and invasive. In his novel "1984", George Orwell imagined a terror-state where drone-like humans were monitored 24 hours a day. But Orwell reckoned without the double-sided appeal of voyeurism. In our bored, power-obsessed age, we want 'real' carnage, not fiction, to lap up. Liposuction on "Greenlane", hookers on "Ricki Lake", other peoples' ugly wallpaper on "DIY Rescue" - bring it on!
And in a world where being watched is essential to being famous (which apparently leads to happiness, great sex and eternal life), there'll always be some ambitious would-be media starlet ready for their close up.
"Temptation Island" is my new favourite - it's like "Fantasy Island" meets "Blind Date" in thong bikinis. Five impossibly muscled studs and their silicone-titted girlfriends get sent to a tacky Malibu Barbie resort, where more over-inflated singles try to tempt them into infidelity. Everyone's a "Model/Actor/Champion Lifesaver", so you can always count on them to give you their best camera angle, even as they get thrown into hot tubs, knock back tequila shots or bitch-slap each other when tempers fray. But watching self-obsessed whores trying not to give into their own selfishness is a little too predictable. Why not just move to Auckland?
"Big Brother" moves to even greater Orwellian extremes - it's like "1984 - The Theme Park!" In the version currently on our screens, twelve gormless Aussies get locked in a house and tracked by cameras for 3 months. An ominous voice called "Big Brother" tells them off when they disobey and makes them crochet blankets or do synchronised swimming in exchange for food. Every week, three 'housemates' - nominated from among themselves - get voted off by the TV audience. (This year, Kiwis can vote.) Hosted by the unbelievably irritating Gretel Killeen, "Big Brother" is like a pay-per-view snuff movie. Don't like a character in this show? Send 'em packing!
I'm waiting for the New Zealand version. Kim Hill, the most terrifying voice on radio, can be Big Sista. Jim Anderton and Laila Harre can argue, and then Jim can take over the video-diary room and open the "Progressive Big Brother" show. Ex-Maori TV head John Davy can reveal he's been placed in the house by a witness protection agency. Paul Holmes can tell us - again - about the joys of marrying someone half his age. Of course it's not reality - none of it is. But in a world of home videos, email monitoring and police surveillance cameras in our streets, it won't be long before we're all in the camera's gaze.