Conflict is drama—and high drama is the essence of reality television. That has been the accepted wisdom in Britain for two decades, since Big Brother cooped people up in a shared house and forbade them access to anything that might stop them from getting on one another’s nerves.
Audiences have been conditioned to accept that reality television must involve dislikable people being immiserated. “It’s a shame,” says a TV producer in a comedy sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look, reviewing the rushes of a show in which everyone is tediously competent. “I thought it would be interesting to watch talented business people competing for a prestigious job.” Luckily, his colleague has a brilliant idea: “What if, instead, it was idiots competing for a relatively junior job?” And so The Apprentice is born.
When Big Brother first launched in 2000, its cruelty felt unusual, and the program led the way in exploiting Britain’s fault lines of race, sex, and class. (One early contestant, Jade Goody, was attacked for being low-class, called stupid and fat, reviled for being racist, then pitied for developing cervical cancer. She died in 2009, leaving two small boys motherless.) But the show’s very success rendered it obsolete. It popularized a tone that has pervaded public life. Everywhere now feels like Big Brother—what is Twitter, if not angry people trapped together, desperate for any distraction? And the TV genre’s endless ability to create fresh hate-figures has an obvious human cost.