REALITY TELEVISION – Every evening from April to July 2001, between 4 and 5 million French people turned on their television to follow the daily “Loft Story” on M6. 20 years later, in this month of April 2021, up to 1 million people continue to watch the adventures of the “Marseillais in Dubai” on W9, little sister of the first French reality TV and still produced by the same Stéphane Courbit. For two decades, reality TV has undoubtedly been one of the most criticized genres on television and yet still popular with the public.
To understand what pleases and what reality TV brings to the millions of French people who consume it without however condoning it, Then24 spoke with Nathalie Nadaud-Albertini, doctor in sociology from the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), specialist in reality TV to whom we owe in particular the book 12 years of reality TV: beyond moral criticism. It evokes the power of entertainment, but also the cathartic role of these programs which, like Greek tragedies, “can purge us of our passions”. Without forgetting the very particular effect that these confinement programs may have had when 65 million French people were also living in confinement during the past year.
Then24: When the Loft arrived on M6 in the spring of 2001, did it have a kind of negative aura right from the start?
Nathalie Nadaud-Albertini: It’s not really a negative aura. In fact at that time, we are in a situation where we do not know: we know that there is going to be this show, we have read things about it, but we do not understand what it is going to be. The press kit that journalists receive evokes “real interactive fiction”. It’s enigmatic! At the time, we were at the very beginning of the Internet and transmedia, so we did not have the elements to understand this interactive side which was a real innovation of the Loft. And this oxymoron of “real fiction” calls out: we say to ourselves that it will break the principle of reality which structures the individual’s psyche and we wonder if the candidates will not go crazy.
We also wonder about the permanent exhibition of candidates under the cameras, which breaks with the definition of public space as it has been since the revolution. We tell ourselves that it will be the return of the court, where we were subjected to the gaze of others and we could fall into disgrace for a simple word or gesture. This worry is very strong and makes us switch to the side of anxiety.
Before the show even airs, there is the idea that this is something that is going to be on the order of the decadence of society. A little as if the program were at the same time a testimony of the decadence of the company, and at the same time a vector of this decadence.
And very quickly, this anxiety is confirmed?
Yes because what’s going on is the pool scene. The loss of privacy was scary and just a few days after the start of the show, we have this scene of the swimming pool between Loana and Jean-Edouard which is broadcast – especially on the Internet and on TPS. From there, you have a whole country which wonders, which is afraid, which will see the program … and which ends for some by also attaching itself to the candidates.
20 years later, and despite all the criticism against reality TV, these shows continue to attract millions of viewers. Why do we like to watch these programs?
What pleases in reality TV is what pleases in soap operas in general. These are the stories of love, friendship, enmity, family. It is a basis of narrative that exists in other fictions. We must add to this the turning point of the 2010s with first the arrival of the show “Les Anges” on NRJ12 which includes candidates from different programs. This show took the narrative threads and knotted them together: it turned reality TV into a big soap opera.
And then secondly, there is the rise of social networks which has had an amplifying effect. The candidates, when they leave these shows, continue to tell their stories on the networks. Whether they are on the air or not, the soap opera continues every day on our smartphone. A feeling of increased proximity is created on a daily basis with the candidates and we continue to want to follow them. The spring that makes us watch reality TV is this type of attachment there, this relationship.
Reality TV is the epitome of entertainment, right?
Indeed, she plays that role. Often you want to mark the end of your day and all the constraints that come with it with something that allows you to relax, without taking the lead. We want a pure moment that is quiet, and where we can laugh, be moved, possibly be indignant and reality TV responds to all that.
The other pleasure of this entertainment is being able to support the candidates we love through votes at the time of the Loft, or through social networks today. A bit like a football match where the supporters of two camps are opposed, the fans of reality TV form a group to support this or that candidate, to defend him.
In addition to moments of laughter and friendship, the broadcasts are also punctuated by moments of clashes and bawls. Can these scenes have an outlet role for the viewer?
There is something of that yes. In reality TV, there is an overlay, everything is taken to the extreme. It works a bit like Greek tragedy, which purges the viewer of their passions and negative emotions, as Aristotle described it. Reality TV is the same: you see something that you will never do in your life, but seeing it do can be good and have a cathartic effect. It can also have a deterrent effect, we say to ourselves: “Did you see what it feels like when you get angry like that? In fact, it would be better to stay calm ”.
During this year of health crisis, we discovered another role in reality TV, that of mirror of our confinement. A lot of people started to (re) see the first seasons of “Loft Story” or “Star Academy” … How do you analyze that?
This experience of confinement, last March, we had never experienced that. We had no references or standards. But the reality TV candidates had experienced this confinement, so we went to look for things that seemed to us to be able to allow us to apprehend a little this situation.
The confinement we are experiencing today is caused by a pandemic, by something disturbing and that we did not choose. And I believe that we also went to look for a form of confinement that is less anxiety-provoking, more positive and unconstrained, where people experience it quite well. The first confinements like the Loft or the Star Academy were airlocks to another life, we thought that would open up the universe of possibilities of the person. So there is something quite joyful and hopeful. It feels good to see these candidates laughing, doing things together, not going through serious situations and seeing the outside as something that was going to bring them positive things.
It is said that certain films or series, thanks to the characters they portray, can help advance representations and create new standards. Is this also the case for reality TV contestants?
Yes, it was too. As soon as he left The Loft in 2001, Steevy said young people wrote to him to say that the show helped them tell their parents that they were gay. I also think of “Secret Story” with candidates carrying a message of tolerance: this was the case with Erwan, a young trans man, who in 2007 with the secret “I decided to change sex” made a call to kindness and understanding. We could also cite the moving coming out of Eddy on the same show in 2013.
And then we must remember season 2 of “My incredible fiancé” in 2009 in which two heterosexual candidates must make believe that they have fallen in love and that they want to get married. At the time, it was happening in Spain, because the law on marriage for all did not yet exist in France. Except that for the family of the candidate who is not an actor, it is terrible: the father does not admit that his son can be homosexual and leaves the shooting. Finally, filming resumes and they make it a message about understanding each other and tolerance. Nearly 4 million viewers will follow the outcome of this (false) marriage on TF1. Even if the downside, it is always the fact that we seek the approval of heterosexuals in these concepts.
The other downside is that these candidates are often particularly caricatured and that they help to convey stereotypes …
Absolutely. In games, we are often in excess and the candidates enter into a system thought out by the production since the moment of casting. But that does not mean that the candidates, when they speak, are playing a game. I think they are totally sincere and this sincerity is touching.
See also on Then24: What TV looked like in 2001 when “Loft Story” launched