Really changing? The Voice, Master Chef and The Block.
Concerned loved ones noticed a difference in me in recent weeks. We had all been watching The Voice, along with nearly four million other Australians. During other shows like this, I would normally be raging at the TV. The Voice didn’t make me do any of the usual.
That’s because, despite being a singing competition reality show with judges, voting and hype, it remained civilised. The contrast between The Voice’s production ethics and those of countless other contest shows was stark. It was even kind and heartwarming. The judges, all celebrities, didn’t insult anyone. Criticisms were constructive, with ‘I’ statements rather than fiats, pronouncements and ukases. Even the eliminations were conducted in a way that left the contestants with their dignity intact. And the final winners were pretty much as they should have been: the extraordinarily talented young Karise Eden coming first with the experienced professional Darren Percival as runner up. No-one was a loser: most of the contestants will receive a good career boost from the exposure, unlike the late unlamented Australian Idol which tended to shred the voices of the contestants with unsuitable song choices while the judges and producers would abuse and manipulate them for the delectation of sadists.
Before some recent reality shows, the advent of reality TV – Big Brother, the Bachelor, The Apprentice, Temptation Island, etc., was reanimating, Dracula-like from its tomb, our human race’s long shameful history of schadenfreude. Ancient Rome’s Coliseum, the grisly spectacles at Tyburn, Madame Guillotine; was it just self-deception when we boasted our Western culture’s having outgrown these horrors? Or was Running Man, like Blade Runner, less a sci-fi fantasy than a prophetic warning?
I could detail some of the nasties I’d seen: I remember an awful episode of Dancing With The Stars in 2005, when the cruelty of a male judge towards young Nikki Webster was unsettling. I stopped watching the show after that. On Australian Idol, the baiting and pillorying of unfortunate deluded (and hand-picked by producers from thousands) auditionees seemed to invite the entire watching nation into an orgy of derision. The ones who got through to the contest were then subjected to seesaws of extravagant praise and vicious remarks about their appearance, music and character.
The examples are legion; but now it looks as though things might have changed, thank God. It seems now that we’re sick of seeing people humiliated. And I think I can time the change to the first series of Junior Masterchef a couple of years ago. The original Masterchef, an uncompromising British cooking competition, had little time for personalities. They came, they cooked, they won or lost. Australian Masterchef decided to meld cooking with a bit of reality soap opera. We heard more about the contestants’ home life. They (like all reality contestants) had ‘dreams’. They had ‘passion’. Then a nice Catholic mum won the first one and then a couple of years later there came the junior version. And with that the game changed.
I think that they must have brainstormed it through. You couldn’t shout at kids and tell them that they were rubbish. You had to take care of their feelings, for though it seemed to be OK with the Aussie public to crucify a 17-year-old girl’s tango, you risked parental ire if you crucified a nine-year-old. No crying, I think they decided. Not a good look. A psychologist in attendance; co-operation encouraged; sportsmanship commended. Debriefing was obviously available, and proper care taken of the contestants’ mental and emotional welfare, unlike the time when a young man was booted off Masterchef 2011 for making unauthorised phone calls to his family for emotional support.
The result was astonishing: people watched the new, gentle Junior Masterchef in droves. And though the second series was not quite as successful, some of the warmth has now spread to the senior version this year and it’s all the better for it.
So it’s been fun watching The Voice and it’s still fun watching Masterchef. The present version of The Block is amusing in parts, though I haven’t watched it much. Last time I looked, a young wife was shrilling and swearing on top note down the phone to her hapless hubby about her time being too precious to wait a half hour for something or other. And I worried a bit about it because it was an invasion of privacy even though they had obviously known that their conversations would be recorded.
So things have changed a bit in reality TV. Only a bit, mind, and it remains to be seen whether the changes last. Will the new Channel Nine Big Brother (coming in August; fair warning) will be the kind of zombie that crumbles into dust or ends up eating all our brains again? For there comes a point when you have to change the channel. Or switch the damn thing off and do something.
Juliette Hughes-Norwood is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.