April 2007

The Nation Reviewed

The real world

By Charles Firth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at the Screen Producers Association Fringe Conference, in Byron Bay. I can't remember what my area of expertise was, but I do remember one television executive who specialised in getting shows ‘to market'. She explained that in the early 1990s, research indicated that television audiences were becoming increasingly disconnected from the programs the networks were throwing their way. There was a perception that '80s sitcoms like The Cosby Show were inauthentic, that they bore little relation to people's daily lives. The research, she said, showed that television wasn't real enough.

It took a while for the networks to work out how to address this problem. Initially - in Australia, at least - the answer seemed to lie in ‘lifestyle programming'. Burke's Backyard and its countless clones were the first attempt to re-engage restless audiences in a cost-effective way. Overseas, smaller cable networks such as MTV experimented with getting real people to participate in their programs. In 1992, MTV produced the first series of The Real World, which brought seven strangers together for what was the first successful reality-TV show. It is now in its eighteenth season: the longest run of reality in television history (not counting news, which is, I suppose, a sub-genre of reality). Of course, the contestants on The Real World are invariably beautiful and young. This is television, after all; reality has its limits.

At the same time as The Real World was in pre-production, a journalist called Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski was traipsing around the former Soviet Union, writing his book Imperium, in which he interviewed ordinary people about their lives, comparing what the region had been like under the Iron Curtain to what it had become. Kapu?ci?ski had grown up in Poland under Stalin's terror, and in 1989, he'd decided to go to the far reaches of the empire and watch it self-destruct.

While the makers of The Real World were recruiting the cast for the show's first season, Kapu?ci?ski was stuck in a cabin in the Arctic mining town of Vorkuta. (In attempting to reach the cabin during a -50º C snowstorm, he almost died, because the total white-out meant that he couldn't see it, despite being only metres from the door.) Kapu?ci?ski's quest was the same as that of the MTV executives: to document authentic experiences. But instead of contriving his own version of The Real World, he went around the real world and documented it. He was that increasingly rare beast: a reporter who actually went to the places he was writing about.

When he died, at the beginning of this year, it rattled think-piece writers across the world, especially in Australia. At Fairfax, one minute's silence was observed, as journalists suspended all writing of trend pieces about handbags to honour the twentieth century's greatest reporter. Over at News Ltd, reporters vowed to report on their next murder victim's distraught family with renewed sensitivity and dedication. Meanwhile, Phillip Adams dedicated an entire show's worth of thoughtful ums to the great man.

As Poland's only foreign correspondent during the '60s and '70s, Kapu?ci?ski was charged with the impossible responsibility of covering events in more than 50 countries. In the course of his career, he was witness to 27 coups or revolutions, though he never stooped to swoop-in-swoop-out journalism. In his book The Soccer War, he described how in the spring of 1969 he had sensed that something was going awfully wrong between El Salvador and Honduras, and so he had gone there, months before any other foreign journalists. When the bizarre, tragic 100-Hour War broke out, ostensibly over a soccer match played in San Salvador, Kapu?ci?ski had already walked across the border between the two countries - which became the war's frontline - and talked to people from both sides.

The report he filed therefore came with the context necessary for his Polish audience to understand it, despite the fact that it concerned two countries half a world away. (It is a story with an unpleasant resonance for Australians, about the tensions created by poor Salvadorian refugees seeking a better life in Honduras but being rejected by a government intent on exploiting the situation for short-term political gain. Sound familiar?) This was all the more remarkable when you consider that for most of Kapuscinski's career, foreign travel was near impossible for the average Pole. But he trusted his audience to be intelligent, to be interested in far-off lands they neither knew nor could hope to visit. He trusted the power of a well-told story, grounded in specific details of people, place and history, to evoke universal lessons. It is why Kapu?ci?ski was able to connect with readers across the globe, including here in Australia.  

In 2003, when he was accepting the prestigious Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage, Kapu?ci?ski paid homage to the "father and master" of reportage, Herodotus, and outlined the three things that he thought had made the Greek historian's take on reality so enduring: extensive travel, unusual people and bucket-loads of homework to bring context to each story. In contrast, reality TV represents a new pinnacle in contempt for audiences. The Real World is decidedly unreal, in that it recruits only people who are the same age, demographic and racial profile as the target audience. It takes them nowhere, and does nothing with them. The same goes for Big Brother, and whatever the latest one is called. It turns out that to make reality exciting, you have to do the opposite of what reality shows do.

"Contemporary media sometimes reminds one of a narcotic addict," Kapu?ci?ski wrote before he died. "Just as he, to continue his being, must secure narcotic, so the media, to maintain their market share, must inject into their veins ever more shocks, jolts, and horrors." Of course, this was a bit hypocritical coming from someone whose own books were so full of horrors and excitement. When he was not ducking bombs in The Soccer Wars, he was struggling against deadly snakes in The Shadow of the Sun or witnessing the collapse of a US-backed regime in Shah of Shahs. He was even sentenced to death four times.

But his point should be taken by television executives who scratch their heads at the diminishing returns of reality TV. To prop up the ratings, they resort to increasingly synthetic shocks and jolts to keep the interest of the restless masses. Those executives on the SPAA panel in Byron Bay who were so enthused by the success of reality TV have all since returned to producing drama or documentaries - the latest popular iteration of the quest for authenticity. But so long as that quest is laced with contempt for the amount of reality which audiences desire, it is doomed to fail. Reality TV, networks have discovered, is unrepeatable. Great reportage endures ­- in the best cases, across the centuries.

What made Kapu?ci?ski a great writer was not just his literary flourishes or his vivid imagination. He was, in fact, driven by the same understanding of the media that television executives hit upon in the early '90s. In his 2003 acceptance speech, Kapu?ci?ski told the crowd, "Modern people, living in a world conjured up by the media, of illusions and appearances, simulacra and fables, instinctively feel they are being fed untruth and hypocrisy. And so they seek something that has the power of a document, truth and reality, things authentic."

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