No format has been more maligned than reality TV. Its obituary has been written many times. Commentators pour over declining ratings of the likes of Big Brother and X Factor. In the age of Netflix we gaze into a future where live viewing is obsolete. Yet just when it seems time to switch off the life support machine the format bounces back and trammels all over its scripted competition. The fanfare that has greeted the return of ITV’s Love Island is a case in point. Not only have the tabloids lapped up this abattoir of bronzed horniness. Even the Guardian, out of a sense of noblesse oblige to explain the zeitgeist, has reeled off think pieces on the meaning of the Love Island.
The implications for scripted drama are obvious. Well edited and selectively curated, reality can be far more engaging than anything devised by even the most gifted screenwriter. This isn’t about authenticity. Whether it’s the bonkorama of Love Island or the cringe comedy of First Dates the audience is perfectly aware of the devised nature of the action- these formats are as much documents of reality as Handmaid’s Tale is a document of Trump’s America. What appeals –and crucially, across all age groups- is storytelling.
Curated reality goes beyond TV to the communications industry more widely. Anyone who has spent time actually going lectures at Cannes Lions will be familiar with presentations on the art of crafting entertaining content and brand narrative. Yet is story a magic sauce or is it snake oil? Do we actually know what we’re talking about anymore when it comes to storytelling? If we think some cool VR experience telling your audience why your product is awesome will cut it- think again. Whatever the context, a story works if it is reducible to 5 constituent parts: funny, sexy, spectacular (/escapism), alarming or enlightening. Love Island is successful not because it redefines the genre but because it covers all the bases. Like the much lauded strategy of Olympic maestro Sir David Brailsford the show makes just enough marginal gain in each element to pay off as satisfying entertainment. If Aristotle were around today he would no doubt write a comprehensive thesis on how this balance is best achieved in the reality TV format.
There are those who will baulk at the deliberate blurring a facts and story. The outrage at the discovery that the Evening Standard has been selling favourable column inches to a number of tech companies is heightened by an environment anxious about fake news and the influence of the likes of Cambridge Analytica.
Yet should we expect our news to be purely factual documentation? In the latest edition of the London Review of Books Andrew O’Hagan delivers a magisterial 65,000 word essay –unprecedented in the title’s history- on Grenfell which includes a damning portrait on the way the immediate aftermath was depicted in the media: “Reality wasn’t good enough, tragedy wasn’t bad enough, it had to be augmented, blown up.” Yet to be fair to the journalists who arrived on the scene of the still smouldering tower block, it is not obvious what is wrong with reporting emotion, especially when trying to capture the turmoil of those affected. To believe there ought to be no drama or sensation in news report –even in times of catastrophe like Grenfell- is to be overly squeamish and disingenuous.
Done well, storytelling knows the balance to strike between emotion and fact, between humour and seriousness, alarm and insight. If a rehash of an old sex in the sun format can understand this, then there are no amount of bullshit superlatives that lazy PR can hide behind.