A shiny new reality programme - The Circle - started this week on Channel 4. But underneath the hashtags, the glitter and Maya Jama's smokey voice, we require nothing more than a tried and tested formula, right? A group of 20-somethings thrown together for a set period, tasked with a series of 'challenges' and placed in some fake dramatic situations. Millions of us will watch it. Millions of us will talk about it. Even though it's been 18 years since the first Big Brother, and numerous copies, we remain compelled. So, something must be happening to the viewer to keep us watching. What are we not bored of?
What can reality TV teach us?
Let's examine. Firstly, there is something both attractive and repelling about the combination of these 5-star confined quarters and a group of carefully curated contestants stuck together.
A bit of envy: nice villa, oh I'd like a chair like that for the garden/abs like hers. Jammy lot. Six weeks off in the sun, sitting around partying, no loneliness, new ready made set of friends and a career afterwards too!
A bit of fear: fancy being stuck in there with them! No privacy, isolated, surrounded by strangers... I wonder how I would come across? I bet everyone would hate me.
So envy, aspiration and fear are pretty irresistible. What else is going on? We get to escape real life, transport but fake 'test ourselves' in 'real' situations here too, all from the comfort of the sofa.
You watch Love Island and you are instantly 18; over-analysing in your friends' bedroom, looking lush, drinking wine and wafting the Elnett. You watch The Circle; you are a tight, toned 20-something in a Halls of Residence type scenario. You watch Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! and there is an element of being thrown together - like at school, college, uni, a new work place. We can all relate. "I remember my first day at X. I felt terrible! Oh I wouldn't say that... That would only p**s people off..." etc.
So, what's actually happening on a conscious or unconscious level? Valuable learning may be taking place when we watch reality TV. Stop sniggering at the back. Here, night after night, we get to watch differing examples of conflict management, differing examples of speaking up/piping down, differing ways of self-soothing...
In a world where the family unit comes in all shapes and sizes but often small units, most people have a collective experience during their education when they are thrown together for many years within a class peer group. But after that, opportunities for developing skills and learning how to work in teams; how to manage different types of people; how to share views and debate with those of differing opinions, might be less forthcoming. I know a 60-year-old man who had trouble making friends after his divorce; a 40-something woman who wasn't sure how to get on with younger girls at work; a 30-year-old dad who doesn't know how to make conversation with new work colleagues. It's seen as fine to read books such as How to Be A Grown Up and How To Be A Girl and find the answers, but observing them on the screen is different... How? Isn't that just plain snobbery? It's fine when it's packaged up as literature and called culture and reviewed favourably in The Guardian, but it's just boring, reality TV when it's on the box with people from Essex? In real life, after school and family, there is limited opportunity to watch and experiment. People's behaviour on TV - contrived or not - is a helpful cue. There is something about watching an artifically-formed tribe 'form, storm and norm' that is enlightening. We learn important lessons about others and ourselves.
Realisation of a process: from step one, no one knows each other, to step two, they explore each other and start to make friendships, alliances and enemies, to step three, when called upon the whole house/island/team operates together. Rather like an anemone, the interactions between individuals and groups flex and flux and viewers may be drawn into liking someone one day and feeling anti-them the next; an interaction between housemates perhaps touches on their own issues.
They might be surprised to find that a housemate they have found to be similar to them or express the same views or have the same background as them does not act in the way they
would expect. And all the time we are learning.
There may be a parallel process occurring; the viewer relates to a specific housemate in the way that the housemate is relating to another in the house. Something of the experience is transferred or evokes for them a feeling they didn't expect. This emotional engagement may be insightful. "Ah ha!" moments can occur.
Perhaps subliminal learning about human interaction is a valuable output from reality TV - being self-reflective and recognising why you feel as you do (about the action in the house or the jungle) is a sure way to create a place for choice: "I have seen that, and I feel this as a result and I can choose to behave therefore in a similar fashion, do something completely different, wonder why that provokes me..." and so on.
We all need a good enough mother to help us on our way as we grow up, to provide enough safety and enough mirroring for us to know how to respond and react to the things life holds, big and small, from early emotional responses to playground stuff and beyond. Reality TV provides a similar developmental opportunity. It has the containment and safety of "mother"; it's on TV so actually the viewer is safe; it's not them in there, but as their emotions ebb and flow and the outcomes they desire ebb and flow, a really useful process takes place.
We've got snobbish about reality shows, but maybe we've been a little too quick to judge. Next time you are boring on about why another new reality show has been commissioned, have a think beyond the cut away swim suits and Gladiator sandals.