Dissecting the factual viewer

Richard Kilborn is an academic with a particular interest in factual programming. He lectures at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and is the author of the books Staging the Real: Factual TV programming in the age of Big Brother (Manchester University Press, 2003) and Confronting Reality: An Introduction to Television Documentary (Manchester, 1997, with John Izod), among others.
January 1, 2007

Richard Kilborn is an academic with a particular interest in factual programming. He lectures at the University of Stirling in Scotland, and is the author of the books Staging the Real: Factual TV programming in the age of Big Brother (Manchester University Press, 2003) and Confronting Reality: An Introduction to Television Documentary (Manchester, 1997, with John Izod), among others.

Readers of realscreen need no persuading when it comes to the pulling power of the real. Factual entertainment – whether it comes in the shape of the latest reality show or is dressed up in more traditional documentary garb – has undoubtedly been one of television’s success stories in the last couple of decades. Audiences can now be certain to find particular types of factual shows in strategic slots throughout the schedule. And this, of course, has meant that most of the shows we get to see nowadays are produced very much according to schedulers’ demands.

If factual programming has proven to be one of the key weapons in the scheduler’s armory, what is it about these shows that makes them so attractive from the audience’s point of view? The first and most obvious point is that the factual genre encompasses a wide range of programs, all of which target their audience in slightly different ways. It’s very much a case of different strokes for different folks. For those who favor action-packed drama with the thrill of police chases and the like, there are the shows belonging to the ‘Accident and Emergency’ category. Those looking for slower-paced, more dialog-centred entertainment will be drawn to the less hectic world of the docusoap. And those who get their kicks from following the antics of a motley group of cooped up individuals need look no further than the latest reality game show.

As with every other type of programming, each new factual format that hits our screens is seeking to impress on the strength of its ‘Look at me – I’m different!’ appeal. And differentiation is paramount. Should viewers feel producers are simply serving up cloned versions of old favorites and that they’re being treated as so much audience fodder, they’ll not be slow to express their displeasure. There were several examples of this in the late 1990s when broadcasters in the UK began to crowd their early evening schedules with docusoaps that were pale imitations of earlier hit shows like Airport and Driving School. Viewers quickly became disaffected and the docusoap genre began to lose its allure.

If producers are in one sense constantly having to reinvent the factual genre in order to maintain their position in an increasingly crowded TV marketplace, it’s important to remind ourselves that there are still certain basic elements that constitute the essence of factual’s appeal with viewers. Regardless of how each format is set up, almost all of these shows feature a number of real-life, flesh-and-blood individuals to whom viewers can easily relate. This provides a refreshing, and some would say salutary, contrast to the glossy artificiality that marks so much of today’s television.

That being said, the fact remains that most of the programming to which the ‘reality’ and ‘factual’ labels are attached makes its claim on our attention not so much on the strength of it being enlightening as it being diverting. In other words, audiences do not turn to these shows to gain useful knowledge about real-life issues; they consume them rather as they would any other piece of tv entertainment. And if entertainment is a key expectation on the part of the audience, this means producers have to work hard to ensure that those they select to participate in these shows actually deliver entertaining performances.

There are two aspects to this notion of performance. On the one hand, subjects have to be able to project an aura of real-life ordinariness. At the same time, they are also required to display more ‘actorly’ qualities, ones that enable them to acquire the status of ‘performer’ in the audience’s eyes. (This may explain why certain individuals who audiences first encounter as characters in some of the better-known docusoaps or reality shows have gone on to be fully-fledged TV celebrity presenters.)

Whilst there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that viewers form strong bonds of attachment to these real-life performers, focus group research has also shown that viewers are acutely aware of what’s needed to deliver such a performance. They appreciate that the rules of the game will sometimes push these factual performers into appearing slightly ‘larger than life.’ On the other hand, viewers also claim to derive particular pleasure from spotting those occasions when subjects drop their performer’s mask, thus allowing ‘flickers of authenticity’ to shine through. The claim being made here is that one of the basic appeals of this form of entertainment is the opportunity it gives for demonstrating one’s own media savviness.

If producers of factual entertainment are always seeking after new ways of engaging audience attention, one favored strategy has been to exploit the opportunities afforded by the interactive technologies. In the case of reality game shows like Big Brother, the opportunities provided for interactive involvement (voting off contestants, or participating in chatroom gossip) go a long way to explaining the phenomenal success that these shows have had. This may be a limited form of involvement in that viewers know it’s the producers who are really calling the shots. Nevertheless, viewers clearly get quite a buzz out of being able to share views about the latest developments with like-minded individuals in cyberspace. This explains why producers go to such lengths to ensure they maximize the number of ways users consume and interact with the material on offer.

If producers of factual formats have to move with the times to extend the appeal of their work, they still rely on tried and tested methods for capturing audience attention. The new factual formats may claim to be boldly innovative, but on closer inspection many of them borrow quite extensively from other tv genres. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that many factual shows freely avail themselves of techniques and approaches developed by soap opera producers. Knowing how captivating the leading soaps have proven to be, factual producers consciously seek to piggyback on some of their techniques. For instance, with the increasing number of reality formats that are character-centered, subjects are selected and cast in exactly the same way as they would be if they were characters in a fictional drama serial. Likewise, story lines are created with a view to ensuring the likelihood of romantic or dramatic exchanges between characters. And last but not least, particular care is taken at the editing stage to ensure that attention is constantly switched between different clusters of characters in the same way as story lines are interwoven in soaps.

All the borrowing that goes on between fiction and non-fiction does not appear to have had an adverse effect as far as viewers are concerned. There is general acceptance of the fact that, in today’s evermore competitive broadcasting environment, program-makers will seek to combine elements drawn from different genres in order to satisfy audience appetite for something new. And there’s also evidence to suggest that, when it comes to an audience’s engagement with certain types of factual, viewers will consciously draw on other types of viewing experience, thereby bringing an extra dimension to their viewing.

Take, for example, Michael Apted’s popular 7-Up series, which has been consistently voted as one of the top 50 docs of all time. The series (started in 1964) has tracked the lives of fourteen English kids from a variety of different backgrounds. The initial remit was to chronicle how class origins would condition the future course of the children’s lives. In the fullness of time, however, 7-Up has become less of a chronicle and more an extended exploration of how the group of erstwhile seven-year-olds has developed as individual characters. As viewers follow the successive Up series films, they have arguably begun to bring other viewing experiences to bear in relating to Apted’s subjects and their respective life stories. The experience of watching 7-Up thus becomes not all that dissimilar from that of viewers’ long-term involvement with their favorite soap. (For more on Apted, see Fed Up on page 48.)

So, what is it then that viewers actually get out of watching factual? Predictably enough, all the audience research conducted so far shows a wide range of responses to the material on offer – as diverse as the audiences themselves. Some viewers claim they learn a good deal from these shows (especially those like Animal Hospital, which have a deliberately instructional element). For other members of the audience, the enjoyment is tempered by a number of ethical issues, not least worries about the potential exploitation of volunteer participants. All in all, however, the available evidence points to the audience being far more critically aware than many critics are disposed to believe. Viewers seem, for instance, especially well clued-up about what one might call the ‘structuring principles’ of these shows: the techniques and ploys which producers use to ensure the program secures and maintains audience interest.

In plainer English: viewers can always spot a turkey when they see one!

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.