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Unreal Reality Shows

Reality shows, in which contestants undergo a range of challenges while their interactions, emotions and everyday lives are inspected by a television audience, are a staple of modern entertainment. To many, this is a relatively recent and surprising phenomenon. However this genre, and what it says about human nature and society, has been under inspection in science fiction for a surprisingly long time.

Year of the Sex Olympics

Many early science fictions involving missions of discovery or adventure describe intense media interest and journalistic coverage - with examples including Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (novel, 1912) and a tradition extending back to Around the World in Eighty Days (novel, Verne 1872) and to actual international journeys of discovery. However media reportage of such expeditions falls somewhat short of the true modern reality show in which the personality and reactions of the people involved, many of them unknown non-celebrities, rather than their activities, form the primary subject of interest.

The elaborate costumes seen on screen in Year of the Sex OlympicsArguably the first broadcast science fiction to accurately portray the modern conception of reality television is a BBC drama from 1968 which revels in the name The Year of the Sex Olympics. Written by dramatist Nigel Kneale, it envisages a world in which overpopulation and automation have rendered most people superfluous, and in which average members of the public are kept drugged and passified for hours at a time by television programmes such as the eponymous Sex Olympics. So-called “low-drive” individuals do little but watch televised pornography for hours at a time, in an attempt to suppress their reproduction. As a television executive character (played by Leonard Rossiter) tells us: “The found that if they screened everything, and screened it real keen style, then basically the audience would make do with that in place of the real thing.” 

The title slide for the show-within-a-show: The Live Life ShowRebelling against his role and the boredom of organising the event, a “high-drive” television executive proposes that he and his family be permitted to relocate to a remote, abandoned island, and make a new hand-to-mouth life there, with hidden camera footage used for entertainment to justify the cost and social unacceptability of this lifestyle. The resultant “The Live-Life Show” is a tremendous success. However the pioneer survivalists are faced with unexpected challenges when ruthless television producers incorporate a shocking twist in the scenario.

Kneale intended the drama as a searing indictment of the entertainment industry and its ability to shape public mores, the ability of an elite to dictate the lifestyle of those less fortunate, and the brutal selfishness of the viewing public. The shocks started with the title of the production. While we never see more than a little innocent tumbling on screen, the mere concept of sexual relations as a public spectacle, let alone entertainment was shocking in the 1960s. The idea that such a thing could be watched with boredom and disinterest is the ultimate in challenging social mores and imposing cognitive dissonance on the audience. However the finale, which contrasts the sex with violence, also questions just how far an entertainment industry can go… and how much an audience will tolerate.

Crime and Punishment

While The Year of the Sex Olympics has been lauded for its prediction of Survivor and Big Brother, earlier writers also saw the threat. Published in 1958, Robert Scheckley’s science fiction short story “The Prize of Peril” describes “thrill shows” which promote normal members of the public to celebrity by placing them in life-threatening scenarios, and providing prizes if they survive. The protagonist Jim Reader, is such a survivor and is challenged to escape pursuit by professional gangland murderers, while all of America looks on. The story was later filmed in french and german language adaptations.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running ManThe plot of "The Prize of Peril" is echoed in the 1987 blockbuster movie The Running Man (dir. Glaser). In fact a legal investigation concluded that the movie was influenced by the 1983 French film adaptation, as well as the 1982 novel of The Running Man by author Stephen King. The film featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards, a pilot who is framed for defying the orders of a totalitarian state in the America of 2017. His sentence (like those of most criminals) is to participate in a violent reality show in which he is pursued by killers, while the chase is broadcast on television. His attempts to escape win the sympathy of the audience, both on and in front of the screen. As in Year of the Sex Olympics, the defence offered by the television production executives is that the televised violence satisfies a demand from the general public, and again the plot satirises the media and comments on social inequalities, while the game is emblematic of a population oppressed by lulling satiation.

The everyman audience members watching televised events in Vengeance on VarosPerhaps unsurprisingly, given its long history of combating totalitarian dystopias, Doctor Who (TV, 1963-1989, 2005-present) has also used the medium of science fiction to critique the corrupting influence of television media. In 1985’s “Vengeance on Varos”, the Sixth Doctor and Peri land the TARDIS in the midst of a televised execution of a political dissident. On the planet Varos, it transpires, not only are the trials and punishments of criminals televised, but so are votes on government policy. Negative outcomes of this compulsory direct democracy lead to an equally-public and televised punishment of the planet’s governor. Unusually for this genre, the governor himself is shown as a victim of external commercial and political interests who are driving the system forward, rather than being identified as the dictatorial villain. While the Doctor eventually resolves the situation, a middle-aged couple is repeatedly visited as an inset to the main plot. These represent the callous and thrill-seeking viewing public, and find themselves at a loose end and bewildered by the loss of their entertainment.

Free Truman Burbank!

The 1998 blockbuster feature film The Truman Show (dir. Weir) broke new ground in this genre by imagining a truly immersive reality show. The title character, Truman Burbank was adopted as an infant by a television company and placed with a family of actors in an entirely-enclosed, domed artificial world in which no space was free of hidden cameras. Psychologically conditioned never to leave the small town in the dome, he grew up to adulthood unaware that he was under constant, twenty-four hour a day televised scrutiny.

The movie poster for The Truman ShowAs with other examples of reality programmes in science fiction, we are shown the audience of The Truman Show as well as the protagonists, but here they are not drawing sadistic pleasure from torturing the subject - instead it is clear that many people draw comfort and companionship from their connection to Truman’s idyllic and happy life. However this breaks down when Truman begins to suspect that all is not quite right in his world.

The Truman Show (just) predated the rise of the modern reality show genre, and has been extensively analysed in that context. It is also notable for a relatively early example of viral marketing. The film was advertised with posters and stickers declaring “Free Truman Burbank!”, without explicitly naming the film - instead they were designed to encourage curiosity, investigation and word-of-mouth discussion. At the time, similar slogans were widely used for protesting the incarceration of political prisoners or others who were considered to be unjustly imprisoned. Interestingly, this advertising approach positioned the audience (often unawares) in the role of the few characters on screen who protested Truman’s treatment. Through this viral advertising, the public was drawn in to discussing the film and engaging with its premise, blurring the bounds between reality and fiction, in a mirror of the narrative's main theme.

Not Just a Game

The boundary between reality show and television game show can become blurred, particularly with modern producers increasingly dwelling on the personal stories of players even within a formulaic half hour programme. An interesting early excursion into science fiction game shows came with the BBC television series The Adventure Game (1980-1986), in which small groups of celebrities were filmed as they worked through a series of escape-room style logical challenges, with the “help” of a group of aliens from the planet Arg, before attempting to cross “the Vortex” in order to return to Earth. However in this case, the focus was very clearly on the game scenario, rather than the players and their life-histories.

 The modern era of reality television probably began in 2000 with Big Brother - a programme in which a group of strangers were placed in an enclosed and camera-riddled house and monitored twenty-four hours a day. While the “housemates” were set challenges, these were merely a small element of the programme, which focused on the psychology and sociology of how they interacted and their personalities. Subsequent reality shows have ranged from those which follow characters through their nominally 'normal' every-day lives (e.g. The Kardashians, The Only Way is Essex) to those which focus on game challenges and how the players respond to these challenges or other ordeals (e.g. I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here or The Traitors).

The Doctor faces expulsion from the Big Brother house in episode Bad WolfThe connection between reality television and modern game shows was explicitly articulated in the 2005 Doctor Who story “Bad Wolf”. Here the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack find themselves abducted from the TARDIS and thrown into the midst of futuristic interpretations of then-contemporary television game shows: The Weakest Link, What Not to Wear and Big Brother. In each, the consequences of losing the game were terminal, and each was broadcast live to an entertainment-starved, dystopian Earth. Players can indeed win money or other luxuries, but their participation is compulsory rather than voluntary. It proves that the state of the media in this case is actually the direct result of an earlier intervention of the Doctor. In removing an alien influence that had been distorting Earth’s broadcast news media a century before, the Doctor himself triggered an economic and political collapse, with subsequent high unemployment and social disintegration causing restlessness which the game shows were designed to appease. As well as satirising the then-new trend towards reality game voyeurism, this story cautions against removing information sources to leave a vacuum of ignorance, or throwing society into disorder without considering the possible consequences further down the line.

In “Bad Wolf” lethal punishments are accomplished through robot or technological devices, making them clinical and bloodless affairs. However the true barbarity of a compulsory and lethal broadcast game has been explored in other science fiction dystopias. The 2000 Japanese feature film Battle Royale (dir. Fukasaku) described a government initiative to curb juvenile delinquency. In this fascistic alternative reality a school class is selected annually and abandoned on an island to fight to the death. While primarily a violent action thriller, the film comments both on youth violence and on the dangers of intergenerational conflict. While not explicitly designed as a reality show, the film inspired a number of imitators which strayed into the reality show genre, while English translations of the source manga (comic book) also suggested a reality show premise.

One science fiction franchise which has been widely described as inspired by Battle Royale and is certainly in the reality genre is The Hunger Games. In the original trilogy of novels published by Susanne Collins between 2008 and 2010, a dystopian and post-apocalyptic future America is divided into twelve (originally thirteen) Districts, each with a specialised economic role. In punishment for a past rebellion, young people in each district are entered into a compulsory lottery, with a boy and girl selected each year to represent their district in the titular Hunger Games - a televised combat to the death which is avidly watched by the entire population.

Katniss being interviewed for television in The Hunger GamesWhile the so-called tributes are fighting for their own survival, they are also hoping to win wealth, food and other luxuries for their districts. Across three books and their 2012-2015 film adaptations, the narrative follows a young woman Katniss Everdeen as she competes as a tribute and then navigates the after effects of her efforts.

In the Hunger Games, the primary audience of the competition is in the luxurious, self-indulgent Capitol, and their voyeuristic interest is in sharp contrast to the desperate interest of the involved Districts who watch mainly in support of their own tributes. The author, Collins, has explicitly commented on finding inspirations in her own channel surfing between reality shows on one television station and coverage of middle-eastern war on an adjacent channel.

Bread and Circuses

The recurring themes in science fiction representations of reality television are obvious and show little variation across five decades of writing and broadcast. In each case, we see a societal disconnect between elite and underprivileged (often associated with economic disadvantage or unemployment). And in each case, we see an assertion that normal human beings feel a herd-like compulsion to watch the emotional or physical pain of others. Given the undeniable success of modern reality shows, it is hard to argue against this.

But is this actually a modern phenomenon, and, if so, how did writers from the 1950s to the 1990s come to predict it?

Of course, the answer is that this is far from a recent development. It can likely be traced back as long as humanity has existed, but can certainly be seen as rooted in the ancient Roman concept of Bread and Circuses. Since that time it has been a political truism that an elite can hold on to power as long as two basic needs are fulfilled for the majority of the population: the provision of food and the provision of some form of entertainment. As was the case in Roman circuses, for whatever reason, violence appears to be provide a compelling form of entertainment for many, while Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in others’ misfortune) is a recognised component of human psychology.

However while the capacity of science fiction to satirise and critique both society and psychology is always fascinating, perhaps of more interest in this context is the area of futurism. Should we truly be surprised at the ability of writers in the 1950s and 60s to anticipate modern reality television, and what lessons should we take forward from contemporary science fictions?

Well, as many commentators have pointed out, science fiction is not a genre purely or even primarily focussed on predicting the future. Writers such as Kneale were not setting out to write a detailed forecast of what would later happen - instead they were satirising and commenting on trends already present in the increasingly sensationalist media of their own time. Similarly films such as The Running Man and Battle Royale provide a commentary on the televised, helicopter-tracked police chases and apparent rise in youth violence of their own times rather than explicitly setting out to claim that their plots will play out in the distant future. And Doctor Who may have had fun with looking at future versions of familiar shows, but if anything it was criticising a contemporary lack of originality in programme production, rather than genuinely predicting Big Brother would run for another 198 millenia.

Literary and serious science fiction has never been about imagining distant fantasies. It is a genre that seeks to examine contemporary society, and make well-justified logical extrapolations of trends which are already visible, whether technological, scientific or sociological. That we now live in a world of Big Brother, Survivor and similar programmes do not mean that Nigel Kneale’s suggestions in The Year of the Sex Olympics were some form of gifted prophecy. They suggest that his observation and critiques of his own times was more acute and insightful than most.

Reality television is now part of our cultural milieu. It reflects a world in which celebrity is sought after, rapidly granted and just as rapidly discarded, and it speaks to some of the darker aspects of human nature. That science fiction anticipated its existence demonstrates how deeply rooted the genre is in a writer’s contemporary worldview and the ways in which the genre acts as a thought experiment extrapolating from the present, rather than as a crystal ball to the unknown and uncertain future.

“Unreal Reality Shows”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 26th March 2023.

All views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily align with those of the University of Warwick. All images sourced from publicly-accessible sources online.