«ROSSER JOHNSON Auckland University of Technology Morality, makeovers and marketing: (re)constructing “worth” in reality television. A case study ...»
Peer Reviewed Proceedings of 5th Annual Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ),
Hobart, 24-26 June, 2014, pp. 151-162. ISBN: 978-0-646-93292-7. © 2014
Auckland University of Technology
Morality, makeovers and marketing: (re)constructing “worth” in reality television. A
case study of The Block New Zealand.
NEW ZEALAND TELEVISION, COMMERCIALISM, AND THE MAKEOVERSHOW The history of television in New Zealand is a resolutely commercial one. Advertisements featured on state-run channels from their inception (Simmons 2004:52) and as the medium developed the centrality of commercial speech became increasingly clear. By the early 1980s, a combination of politically-motivated underfunding, technological change and ideological 151 Morality, makeovers and marketing: (re)constructing “worth” in reality television framing had ensured that “television” was fundamentally reliant on advertising revenue.
Perhaps the most obvious indication here is that in 1974 the licence fee had provided 43 per cent of total income for the state owned broadcaster Television New Zealand (TVNZ); ten
years later the figure was only 18 per cent (Day 1994: 228). As Nick Perry (2004: 85) argues:
The correlate was, of course, not just a continual expansion in the frequency and duration of commercial breaks. This was accompanied by a normalisation of the notion of advertisers as television’s primary clients – a process with far-reaching implications for both program content and programscheduling.
On one level, such implications were easily demonstrable; viewers have been presented with ever-increasing novel forms of advertising since broadcasting deregulation in the late 1980s.
Examples include programme sponsorship, advertorial programming and some of the highest levels of infomercial broadcasting in the English speaking world (Johnson 2013). On another level, however, the implications of the ideological and practical centrality of commercial logics at the heart of television broadcasting are less obvious. Perhaps because of the incremental nature of change, the presence of commercial messages within individual programmes is less obvious to the casual viewer (Johnson & Hope 2004, Johnson & Hope 2001). With the benefit of hindsight, one can observe how programmes and formats “used to be” less commercially-oriented. At the time of viewing, however, every successive modification of editorial content to fit advertising logics is relatively unremarkable (provided that content is successful in its entertainment or educational function).
Of course, the infiltration and impact of commercial messages are not manifest equally among genres. Although a significant amount of scholarship has been devoted to “serious” genres, such as news, current affairs and documentary (see, for instance, Atkinson 1994, Bell 1995, and Debrett 2004), there has been much less treatment of those programmes at the “lighter end”. This article aims to begin to fill that gap, with a case study focussing on a particular light entertainment programme. The Block New Zealand is a local version of an Australian format, where competing couples renovate derelict houses, with complete makeovers of every room and the garden featuring in consecutive weeks. The easy identification of each couple and the fundamentally competitive format of the programme can
be seen in a promotional still for the 2013 season (the subject of this article):
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Here, the four couples are easily identified by the colour of their clothing and the viewer is directly engaged by the gaze of each participant. The image also depicts the high energy nature of the show and, of course, the underlying competition between them.
As a light entertainment / home makeover show, The Block NZ operates very similarly to its Australian forebear. In the New Zealand version, however, the level to which corporate sponsorship and commercial logics have been integrated into the programme is remarkably evident. Perhaps the most obvious sign here is the degree to which the advertising and marketing functions within the programme bleed into online and real-world promotions of the show itself. First, advertisers not only feature in the commercial breaks but also within the 153
narrative of the show; for instance, when paving and landscaping supplies are delivered in Episode 18, each couple freely names the supplier (Firth) and every specific product. And this is no isolated incident: that episode contained at least twenty-four obvious occasions where a sponsors product was used and remarked upon within the narrative. Advertisers also benefit from “information sheets” available at a range of suppliers. The cover page of the
information sheet for that same episode illustrates the potential for product tie-in:
Figure 2: The Block NZ 2013 Information Sheet, Episode 18 (Author’s own) Second, programme sponsors were encouraged to use one of the couples to promote their products both within the programme and in real life. Each of the four couples was associated with a major sponsor (Mazda, Kiwibank, Bunnings Home Improvements and Wild Bean café). During the narrative they each accessed the services provided by that sponsor as often as practical. The couple – brothers Pete and Andy – who were allied to the Wild Bean café, began every day with a planning session over a coffee at their local Wild Bean. And, in turn,
the cafés featured full size stands where “the boys” promoted particular special deals:
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Such rampant commercialism is not unusual; however, the degree to which a television format deriving from a less commercialised environment could be adapted to be so commercial is, perhaps, more noteworthy. Here, we can see the importance of commercial logics within television in New Zealand; not only do viewers tolerate and expect them, it
could even be argued that a programme needs that level of commercial speech to be viable:
Television format adaptations have become increasingly common in the current media landscape, particularly in the reality television genre. Amongst the many programs that have been remade for a different national audience, there have been distinct successes as well as abysmal failures. A key part of the success of a format adaptation appears to be the ability to adapt to and 155
incorporate the context of the new country – to interpret rather than copy the original program (Beeden & de Bruin 2010: 5) Here, the interpretation revolves around locating the narrative of the programme, and the world “outside” where the programme is located within the wider social totality in a hyperrealised commercialised space, where the sponsors are seamlessly integrated and functionally vital. Such positioning is not without risk, however, especially when the internal logic of the television genre runs counter to the underlying commercialised discourse.
REALITY TV AND MORALITYIt is not my purpose here to survey or critique reality television as a genre; space only permits me to outline the links between that genre and morality. Morality is important to my analysis of The Block NZ for two reasons. First, because reality TV is an established genre, participants and viewers understand the soap-operaesque nature of the discourse of the programmes: there are “goodies” and “baddies” and, usually, character is destiny. Second, the moral worth of each participant (or, more often, character), is (self) reflexively framed against the historical discourse of the genre and the format and / or particular show they appear in: we – the viewers – know the characters are as media literate as we are.
Morality has been at the heart of critical analysis of reality TV since its inception – when Big Brother first screened the meta-question was “is it moral to experiment on people?” Needless to say, not even the most avid proponent of the genre could have envisaged how many people would repeatedly view and volunteer for the ever-increasing variety of televised “experiments”. In 2001 Steven Reiss and James Wiltz found that the main attraction of the Temptation Island franchise was the moral behaviour of the characters and, by implication, the self-perception of viewers own morality that was formed in reaction. Three years later they extended this argument with their analysis of the role of viewer morality in predicting an
individual’s propensity to be a fan of the genre:
The finding that viewing reality TV shows is negatively associated with the extent to which a person embraces morality (honor) is not surprising because many reality television shows champion expedience over ethics (Reiss & Wiltz 2004: 374).
Over the supervening years this discourse has intensified and been reinforced, as the subjugation of ethical behaviour “in order to win” became a more central feature of the genre.
156 Rosser Johnson Bev Skeggs (2005) highlighted the gendered and class nature of the dynamics of morality within reality TV, with working class women being positioned as the least morally worthy of all participants / characters. And Davina Frau-Meigs’ (2006) analysis of successive seasons of Big Brother across a range of European countries demonstrated that the least morally challenging (and most bland) characters tended to win. Alison Hearn (2006) extended this argument with her critique of how the unfolding relationship between the new logics of the surveilled worker in contemporary late capitalist economies dovetailed with the lived experiences of characters within the analogue of that experience as it plays out on the doubly surveilled reality TV show. Further, Meredith Jones’ (2008) explication of the underlying dynamic where reality TV characters use their mediated experiences to alter their social standing, life chances and even corporeal selves demonstrates how significant the “project of the self” became within the genre.
In a series of articles Bev Skeggs and a number of her colleagues argued that the fellow-feeling that exists between viewer and participant is often rooted in the moral logic of the programme: viewers identify with the character(s) who have been poorly treated, whether wittingly or unwittingly by other characters (in terms of their actions and analyses) and by the producers (in terms of the “fairness” or appropriateness of the internal logic of the programme). This is significant for my purposes because it highlights the emerging unstated contract between viewer and producer – “we” expect to know how the characters will fare in the programme; “our” social capital and media literacy offers us an insider’s appreciation of the narrative (Skeggs & Wood 2008, Skeggs, Thumin & Wood 2008 & Skeggs 2009).
More recently, Bernadette Wegenstein and Nora Ruck (2011) have reiterated the moral jeopardy involved in cosmetic surgery makeover reality TV – will the sacrifice and risks be worth the final (transformational) result? And Roscoe Scarborough and Charles McCoy (2014) highlighted the processes through which the moral dynamic experienced and expressed by viewers relates to and feeds back into (a) their identification with the characters and (b) their internalised class position relative to those characters.
Taken together, these studies show how morality, as broadly constructed, operates as a central location of (self) critique for viewers, and how other external markers within the wider social totality (i.e. class, gender) reflect complexity back into this relationship.