What is the Educational Potential of Reality Television?

I just don’t get the majority of Reality Television. Perhaps it’s my age, I don’t know, but it just passes me by. In my view television should entertain, inform or educate, perhaps even a mixture of these, if possible. I find the antics of reality TV “stars” one step removed from watching paint dry. Why is the nation gripped by so much of this stuff; by young people sitting around bitching about each other and doing very little else; by out of tune wannabe pop stars who really should have been told they couldn’t sing before getting anywhere near a camera; and by so-called celebrities (well have you ever heard of them before?), doing things outside their comfort zone. Surely, they could be watching trained entertainers who have learned and refined their craft before exposing it to the public gaze, and dramas with a point to them, and maybe an exciting ending.

Of course, there will be those who see the ubiquity of such offerings as the democratisation of the medium; as the realisation of Andy Warhol’s dream of giving everybody their 15 minutes of fame. But what does it say about a nation which is obsessed by such matters? Has Reality TV replaced the gossip over the garden fence or the gathering in the village square? We are all part of the global village now, and the eccentricities of the village idiot are available on the small screen for the whole world to see.

I’ll admit, there is one exception to my rule. I am regularly gripped by “The Apprentice”, and the attempts of pushy potential business people to impress Sir Alan Sugar. Perhaps I can justify this by the programme’s professed educational mission. We are told that it aims to demonstrate business methods to a wide audience. There is a consensus, however, that it probably fails in this mission, that the cut-throat competition it engenders is not necessarily the best way to operate in the world of business, and that even the star of the show conducts his real-life business dealings in a more democratic and consensual fashion.

I have the dubious pleasure, nevertheless, of living in a household where my jaundiced view of the genre is held by a minority of one. Although I don’t watch the programmes myself, they are playing in the background to much of my life, and I am regularly a bemused participant in one-sided conversations about the latest exploits of the participants in the X Factor, Big Brother, or whatever this week’s favourite is. I admit it worries me, that my children, in particular, are such enthusiastic devourers of such fare. What effect is it having on their view of the world?

Of course, it is possible to take an anthropological view of such things and argue that we are being given ever increasing possibilities to study human behaviour, and that this is a positive thing. But, what are the aspects of human behaviour which are available for study here? True, some of the programmes may allow us to see how people cope under adversity, how they learn a new skill, or how they operate in an unfamiliar environment. But, are those shows where (usually) young people are simply thrown together to see how long it is before they get on each other’s nerves, sexually harass each other, or drive each other insane, doing anything other than demonstrate fairly unpleasant character traits to the world, and encourage the impressionable to imitate their bad behaviour?

This is an issue which exercises me for two reasons, firstly because I am concerned about its effect on my children, and secondly because I am searching for an educational use for such programmes. “The Apprentice” overtly proclaims its education purpose, but most other of these shows do not. Probably the programme makers would argue that it is not their job to educate, they are there simply to entertain. I am sorry, therefore, that in my case, they fail in that respect.

Much of my working life is spent trying to resolve the conundrum that a large part of the modern school system is so distant from the interests, hopes and aspirations of many of today’s young people that we are experiencing record levels of disengagement from learning. I am firmly of the belief that one of the keys to solving this dilemma is to build from what it is that really interests and engages young people and put it to educational uses. Thus, the power of computer games, iPods, mobile phones, hand-held devices, and other technologies which are central to the lives of teenagers is gradually (albeit slowly) being deployed to transform the education process into something which is really meaningful to them. Strategies such as combining work with learning and treating young people as adults are proving effective in reaching those deemed unteachable in traditional school settings.

In this context, what is the role of Reality TV? It is clearly very important to a large section of the young population, as is evidenced by the levels of phone voting for such shows, demonstrating turnout figures most politicians would kill for. It is unlikely that any TV company would commission an overtly “educational” Reality show in a prime time viewing slot, and even less likely that many young people would watch it. So, is it possible to make educational use of the offerings we have?

This is a dilemma I am struggling with, and I would love to hear from anyone who has made progress in this field.

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