Unreal Is the Reality TV Podcast We’ve Been Waiting For

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Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV podcast
Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV

Sirin Kale talks to Emma Garland about Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV – a new audio documentary for Radio 4 and BBC Sounds, which unpacks the attraction and the ethics of reality TV from a place of self-confessed obsession

Reality TV has been with us for over two decades. In that time it’s produced such invaluable cultural offerings as One Direction and “I’M CLAUSTROPHOBIC DARREN”, and evolved from a naive social experiment into a gigantic influencer economy that encompasses everything from fast fashion to forex trading. With its voyeuristic appeal and addictive mundanity, reality TV is arguably the definitive entertainment form of the 21st century – but is it the dumbest genre in entertainment, or the one that tells us most about ourselves?

This is the question that underpins Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV – a new audio documentary for Radio 4 and BBC Sounds, in which journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale unpack the attraction and the ethics of reality TV from a place of self-confessed obsession. From the birth of “scripted reality” with Laguna Beach and The Hills to the BAFTA-winning “docu-soaps” of Made In Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex, the ten-part series takes a deep dive into the worlds of uber-celebrity, redefined beauty ideals, property porn and toxic wealth. It features interviews with over 60 voices in front of and behind the cameras, including contestants from Big Brother and Love Island, stars from Made In Chelsea and Real Housewives, creators and producers from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Selling Sunset and TOWIE – and many more – and frequently returns to the same burning question: who, ultimately, is responsible for what happens on-screen?

We caught up with Sirin Kale to talk about the skill of being a reality TV star, Love Island’s recent move to ditch their usual fast fashion sponsors and partner with eBay (which was announced after Unreal aired), and what the future of reality TV might look like.

Emma Garland: Unreal is expressly a critical history of reality TV. As a long-time reality TV fan, what sort of issues were at the forefront of your mind when you went into making the documentary?

Sirin Kale: The four suicides connected to Love Island prompted a mini-reckoning for me as a long-time fan of the show. Something shifted for me personally after that. I just couldn’t enjoy Love Island in the same way anymore, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how you make reality TV ethically, and whether that’s even possible. So for both Pandora and I, that was the central jumping-off point for the series – is this format ethical? Can it be ethical? Has it, historically, been ethical? This is a genre that takes ordinary people and makes them famous, but there’s no going back for that for some people, and we can all name examples of ex-reality TV contestants who, quite frankly, don’t seem to be doing so OK. But we also didn’t want to make a depressing or wholly negative podcast. We both grew up watching reality TV, we love reality TV, and it’s given us some truly iconic TV moments. So it was about finding that way through the history of the genre and looking forward to where it went next.

EG: Were there any feelings or assumptions about reality TV that you had going in that you ended up questioning by the end?

SK: Probably my main assumption going into Unreal was that producers like to make reality TV because it’s cheap and easy to make, and boy was I wrong on that. Reality TV – good reality TV – is incredibly hard to make, you need to have really creative and talented producers. Also, my sense is that anyone can be a reality star. It’s a real skill to be a good reality TV star. Very few people are truly brilliant at it; Jade, Charlotte Crosby, Allison Hammond, Mark Wright – they all have that ’thing’ that makes you want to keep watching them. And of course, Gemma Collins, the queen of reality TV. The key is to be authentic but also vulnerable – most people can’t do that with a camera in their face, so I take my hat off to the people who can.

“It’s a real skill to be a good reality TV star. Very few people are truly brilliant at it ... The key is to be authentic but also vulnerable – most people can’t do that with a camera in their face, so I take my hat off to the people who can” – Sirin Kale

EG: There are infinite reality TV shows to choose from. Why did you pick the ones that you did?

SK: Honestly this was a total nightmare and Pandora and I had many good-natured arguments about it! Including one about I’m a Celebrity, if I remember. In the end, we went for the shows that have either truly defined or redefined reality TV (so Laguna Beach, as the birth of scripted reality TV, or Big Brother, as the birth of the modern-day iteration of the genre), or the shows that have had the biggest cultural impact (Keeping up with the Kardashians, as it launched the Kardashian-Jenner dynasty, or TOWIE, which helped recast UK reality stars as micro-social media influencers), or the shows that feel particularly relevant to how we lead our lives now (Selling Sunset, for example, as an example of a hyper-glossy streaming offering, or Love Island, to discuss contemporary reality TV ethics.) But we left out many great shows, and I wish that we had room for them all, but otherwise, this would have been a 100-episode podcast.

EG: One thing that comes up across the episodes is the issue of authenticity and the audience’s desire for contestants that are both relatable and entertaining. Now that we’ve been living with reality TV for over two decades and everyone is very much aware that people go on them, as Molly-Mae puts it, as a “business decision”, do you think reality TV has lost its ability to generate celebrities? And is that something we as an audience still expect from it first and foremost? What do you think audiences want from reality TV, and reality TV stars, in 2022?

SK: I think reality TV still has the ability to generate celebrities – look at Selling Sunset’s Christine and Chrishell, respectively the princesses of darkness and light. But I agree, we’re seeing overload, especially on Love Island where it’s become really tiresome to see the same aspiring influencers audition for their BooHoo deal every year. I think partly that’s just a problem with Love Island – all reality shows have a heyday and a slow fade-out, you can’t keep running a show indefinitely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Love Island ends in a couple of seasons. What people want from their reality TV stars isn’t that dissimilar from what we’ve always wanted ... authenticity is the number one thing, also people who can laugh at themselves, are witty, self-aware, and in our age of social media, shareable. But it’s much, much harder to cut through, which is why people like Christine become such uber-villains because that’s the only way of generating headlines and viewer numbers. There’s just too much reality TV out there.

EG: The podcast identifies the great double bind of reality TV, where we’ve never been more aware of its more negative and harmful aspects and yet ... we can’t help but crave it. Do you think there’s a solution to that? How do you as a fan square this for yourself, if it’s even possible?

SK: Honestly it’s the reason I keep eating at McDonald’s even though I know it’s bad for me and the chickens are probably not being treated well. It’s enjoyable! It tastes good. I think all we can do as consumers of reality TV is use our voices to push for better practices and change, because it does work – Love Island really has improved its welfare packages significantly in recent years, due to a huge public backlash. I think only through consumers pushing producers to do better will we get better safeguards in place for participants. Unfortunately though, with social media being as it is, I do think there’s a limit to what they can do to shield people from sudden fame and trolling, and I suppose it comes down to informed consent for the people choosing to go on these shows, and also not editing them unfairly.

EG: On that note, Love Island recently announced they’d be ditching fast fashion and partnering with eBay for the upcoming season. What do you think of that, and do you think we’ll see more of these sorts of ethically-conscious changes in the future?

SK: I’m personally really glad that’s happened. Pandora interviewed Richard Cowles, an exec producer on Love Island, for Unreal, and she pushed him pretty hard on the fast-fashion partnerships and how damaging these companies can be both environmentally and from a labour/worker rights point of view, so hopefully the message cut through! It’s a great gesture. Unfortunately, I don’t see the next year’s crop of Love Island graduates going on to partner with sustainable brands on their Instagram, as the Boohoos of this world have so much more money. But it’s a step forward.

EG: Why do you think we’re all so obsessed with reality TV and what does this say about us as a society? I’m thinking in particular of how we engage with news, media and entertainment – especially in the 21st century – and how so much of it lives in this strange, almost mythical middle-ground between familiarity and spectacle. Do you see for example a connection between how we engage with reality TV and how we engage with news stories like the Wagatha Christie trial?

SK: Reality TV is fundamentally successful because it appeals to our sense of voyeurism and fascination with the mundane details of other people’s lives. Personally, the stuff I love the most on Keeping Up is watching the sisters sit around eating giant salads out of bowls and trying to figure out what salad dressing they use - it’s weird but I love all that minor detail. I’m a nosy person and I like to peer in through other people’s windows when the lights are on and the curtains are open and reality TV is a socially acceptable way to do this. I think with social media enabling people to create a brand online, the public has access to a person’s public image through their Instagram etc, and what they like about reality TV is the sense of peering behind that brand to get a sense of the real person – basically, the stuff they don’t want you to see: the vulnerable, messy, authentic stuff, the stuff that isn’t polished for an IG grid. Wagatha Christie taps into that impulse – here are these women with seemingly perfect lives, and now we get to read their WhatsApp chats. That’s not a particularly old phenomenon, it’s been around since the beginning of time, but reality TV is a product that caters to that audience demand.

EG: In the first episode, you ask a question that will come up over the course of the series: who’s responsible for what happens on screen. Where do you stand on that now, and has your opinion changed at all over the course of the podcast?

SK: Primarily the producers and execs – they are in charge, they have that duty of care. Then the participants – if they’re adults, they are responsible for how they behave on screen, and we shouldn’t treat them like babies or let them off the hook if they behave unacceptably. And then viewers, we’re the third party in the relationship, and what happens on screen only does so with our tacit acceptance.

EG: Finally, what’s your personal favourite moment in reality TV history?

SK: “DAVID IS DEAD” FOREVER AND EVER. I watch it probably every three months when I’m feeling down and cry with laughter.

Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV is out now.