Like it or loathe it, reality television is a key part of global culture. One of the world’s most famous families rose to prominence through ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’. Not a month seems to pass before others seek to emulate the same fame, with washed-up celebrity after washed-up celebrity flocking to live their lives through the lens. This is not simply a Western phenomenon. India’s version of Celebrity Big Brother, Big Boss, is among the highest watched in the country. The talent programme ‘Chinese Dream Show’ draws viewers in their hundreds of millions. To some, these programmes are simply harmless fun. The attention-hungry are given a chance to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame. The viewers at home are entertained by watching such people engage in humiliating tasks, or drama-filled situations, giving them a comfortable sense of contentment with their ordinary lives. But not all reality shows are so mundane.
One reality TV show seeks to actively challenge perceptions – by placing people in grave danger. The Australian TV series ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’ seeks to tackle discriminatory attitudes within the country. Emmy-Award winning and now in its third season, the SBS series sees ‘ordinary Australians’ taken to the countries of origin for many of Australia’s immigrants and refugees. By showing them the challenges such people face, it is hoped that attitudes will be softened. However noble the intentions of the broadcasters, the real goal of television is to secure ratings. There is no doubt that the higher the shock value, the greater the ratings will be. With the latest series taking contestants to war-torn Syria, it is clear that they will be.
Three of the series’ six contestants were taken to Syria. Under the eyes of armed Kurdish forces, the Australians are forced to live the devastating reality of life in a conflict zone, as they are bombarded and targeted by ISIS forces. Reality television has existed to cross boundaries, but the active placement of individuals into life-threatening situations for entertainment value is a line which was never designed to be breached.
No matter the stated goals of the producers, the reality is that people’s lives are being endangered in pursuit of ratings. In all of the commotion, the apparent aim of the programme will surely go unheeded. Will watching a few of their countrymen play at being internally-displaced persons in a warzone really endear Australians to the plight of persecuted people? Many would doubt it. How will such a programme help the refugees and displaced persons they are using as props? There seem to be no plans for any of the programme’s proceeds to help alleviate their suffering. The contestants will soon be plucked away, scurried back to the safety of life in conflict-free Australia. The crews will disappear, and the televisions will be turned off. If ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’ really sought to change lives, surely it would continue to shine a light on these communities, even when the Australians have disappeared. It would use some of its undoubtedly large advertising revenue to help improve their lives. That is the sad fact about reality television. The screen can be turned off, but life continues.