Forget good taste, reality TV producers are in a race to the bottom
In a so-called 'golden age' of television, Channel 4's latest show Naked Attraction has blushing viewers reaching for the remote, writes Tanya Sweeney
It's been said that we're in the throes of a golden age of television. There has been an impressive parade of dramas, documentaries and pin-sharp comedies - each one more astute and impressive than the last.
Yet, for every Game of Thrones or House of Cards there's a show to remind us that, at the other end of the televisual spectrum, there is an unseemly race to the bottom.
With each reality show striving to be more audacious and atrocious than the last, Channel 4 really have put their competitors behind in the race with Naked Attraction.
Dubbed an on-screen "meat market" (or, worse, "Blind Date in a brothel"), Naked Attraction featured single hopefuls stripping off entirely in a bid to find love.
Ostensibly exploring the "raw primitive attraction" of potential daters, the show's contestants are shown composite body parts of potential matches in a "blind viewing" ... and, as we've likely come to expect, no body parts are left unseen.
Viewers complained in their droves about the full-frontal nudity, describing it as a "new low". But, one man's nadir is another's apex and the show garnered 1.4 million viewers on its opening episode.
Yet, in the steeplechase to provide reality TV's most outlandish water cooler moment of 2016, Naked Attraction has faced stiff competition.
There is Big Brother (and, latterly, Celebrity Big Brother), a bitching bonkfest featuring the most vapid and pneumatic of hopefuls. What was once an enlightening peephole into the minutiae of group psychology has been a parade of barefaced wannabes with an embarrassing need for attention. Brains are out and voyeurism is in.
That Big Brother contestants are keenly aware of this is at once the show's greatest strength and weakness.
Earlier in the summer, Love Island featured a number of on-air sex sessions; in one memorable moment, contestants cheered on fellow islanders Malin and Terry mid-coitus.
With one eye trained on magazine deals and a half-life of tabloid fodder, the blatant careerism of reality TV contestants now rises from them like steam. It's as blatant, on reflection, as the producer's bid for a ratings boost.
Add to this bizarre brew the likes of Gogglebox, Made in Chelsea and First Dates, and suddenly the golden age of TV is starting to look a bit burnished. And all this talk of the golden age of TV has only served to reinforce cultural snobbery and widen the chasm between "serious" and "trash" TV.
That reality producers have stepped up their game in a bid to win back the water-cooler moment is a given. Netflix, Amazon Prime and their ilk mean that we don't watch television when we are told to. Rather, we gulp a series down in a heady gulp, often bragging about our stealth watching on social media afterwards.
This is the fuel that has given series like Making a Murderer its unique horsepower. If Big Brother was once the petri dish for the accidental "everyman" star, now YouTube and Vine are the places where the ordinary person is likely to find overnight success.
Finding themselves on the back foot, reality TV producers know that they've often been entrusted with a TV format that's as knackered and outmoded as a Ford Fiesta.
Heather Havrilesky, former TV critic at Salon, has noted that "self-consciousness will be the death of the genre. As more and more contestants who appear on the shows have been exposed to other reality shows, the argument goes, their actions and statements will become less and less 'real'. What's to blame here is the popular use of the word 'reality' to describe a genre that's never been overly concerned with realism, or even with offering an accurate snapshot of the events featured."
And, when all else fails, they have resorted to trust tactics: the guilty watch, or the shock value. And it could be argued that Naked Attraction is a sort of reaction to the likes of Versailles, or Games of Thrones, where nudity - often parachuted in for the sake of prurience - becomes a real talking-point.
It takes plumbing to even lower depths to shock jaded TV viewers. And in the quest for ratings, salience - not to mention controversy - becomes the Holy Grail.
Certainly, reality TV's ratings have suffered of late: earlier this summer, Big Brother received the lowest viewing figures for a launch show ever, down 300,000 viewers from 2015, and 600,000 fewer than 2014. Yet rumours of the format's demise may well be exaggerated.
There are commentators that have been quick to defend reality TV. Yet in his book, Everything Bad is Good For You, the author Steven Johnson has argued that pop culture, with its increasingly complex narrative structures actually makes people smarter.
"For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest common-denominator standards, presumably because the 'masses' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want," he wrote in the New York Times. "But the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less.
"If early television took its cues from the stage, today's reality programming is reliably structured like a video game: a series of competitive tests, growing more challenging over time. Many reality shows borrow a subtler device from gaming culture as well: the rules aren't fully established at the outset. You learn as you play. Reality programming borrowed another key ingredient from games: the intellectual labour of probing the system's rules for weak spots and opportunities."
With that in mind, pop culture, he argues, enhances "our cognitive faculties", and has "intellectual benefits".
Michael Hirschorn, writing in The Atlantic, also makes a case for reality TV. "Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters," he observes.
"They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact."
Yet even in the face of stiff competition from Netflix and other TV giants, there's another plausible reason to explain the ongoing appeal of trashy TV.
With news and current affairs shows providing a steady drip-feed of violence, upheaval, terrorism and uncertainty, reality TV becomes a sort of soother for the masses. Naked Attraction and its outlandish ilk provide a much-needed antidote and distraction to this ongoing cacophony.
What suffocating lows reality TV's producers may resort to next remains anyone's guess. But given the headlines generated by reality TV's latest offerings, it's safe to assume that things are set to become even more peculiarly offensive.
In the meantime, all we can do is sit, wonder, and stare, one eye-watering body part at a time.