Reality checked?

As ITV's Celebrity Wrestling bites the dust, Colin Grimshaw asks whether reality TV needs to adapt to survive.

As the door shuts on one reality TV show, three more open. ITV's axing of Celebrity Wrestling after four episodes will have encouraged those who predict, more in hope than expectation, the imminent bursting of the reality bubble.

Should any of the next batch of shows - The Farm, Celebrity Love Island and the sixth series of Big Brother - similarly fail in the ratings, there will be much joyous dancing on reality's grave.

Celebrity Wrestling, which pitted the likes of James Hewitt, Iwan Thomas, Jenny Powell and Annabel Croft against each other in lightweight combat, was vanquished by BBC One's Doctor Who in the ratings. It opened with an audience of 3.8m, well below the 7m-8m enjoyed by Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, which it replaced in the schedule. By its third week, this had shrunk to 2.6m, and last weekend ITV pulled the plug halfway through the series.

The second series of Five's The Farm began last week with an audience of 1.2m, down on the 1.4m average for the first effort. Its opening was greeted with criticism from the RSPCA, which branded the first series 'reckless and irresponsible,' no doubt fearing the audience-enticing stunts the producers had in mind to match Rebecca Loos' masturbation of a pig last time around.

Shock tactics

Now all eyes are on ITV's Celebrity Love Island, promising six lust-filled weeks of celebrity shenanigans in Fiji. In its second week, Love Island will go head to head with Channel 4's Big Brother, whose sixth series starts on 27 May.

Big Brother 5 apparently featured an act of on-air sexual intercourse, boosting the series' ratings. Will Love Island's Abi Titmuss and Calum Best now titillate us with the first celebrity coupling?

Upping the shock quotient seems to be the way forward to keep jaded viewers tuned in to sequels of long-running formats. Big Brother 3, with its alleged oral sex, marked the show's audience zenith.

Series four was comparatively dull, and had 1.2m fewer viewers - something needed to be done. Enter Big Brother 5 with its unisex bedrooms with double beds, and, for good measure, a trans-sexual contestant.

ITV's I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here is also showing signs of flagging appeal. Ratings for the last series, although still a healthy 8.6m, were 22% down on the previous series, which had the intrigue of a blossoming romance between Katie Price (Jordan) and Peter Andre.

Yet it would be premature to write off reality TV, say industry experts, who expect the genre to be revitalised through format innovation.

Chris Bonney, managing director of Screentime Partners, which sells reality formats around the world, points to the experience in the US. There, shows are moving away from contestant elimination and celebrity formats, due to their over-exposure in the schedules, toward docusoaps, in the manner of Channel 4's Wife Swap.

This trend has been exacerbated by the reluctance of celebrities in the US to make fools of themselves on reality shows, adds Bonney. In the UK, producers also seem to be trawling a small pool of gallant fame-seekers.

Several, including the indefatigable Miss Titmuss, have appeared in more than one show.

This has to be a worry, since the popular trend here has been toward celebrity-based formats. The recently concluded second series of ITV's Hell's Kitchen, which featured non-celebrity contestants, attracted 28% fewer viewers than the celebrity-filled first series.

The BBC has earned praise for the more challenging approaches taken by The Apprentice and Dragon's Den, but its two most popular reality shows are the celebrity-based Strictly Come Dancing and Comic Relief Does Fame Academy.

Constructed reality

Bonney admits it is hard to predict how the reality genre will develop in the UK, though he believes the US 'constructed reality' format might be one avenue. This combines actors with members of the public to contrive conflict. My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, for example, saw a physically challenged actor introduced as a potential suitor to a prospective bride's unknowing family.

Another show being developed in the US, Recovery, will trace the efforts of former CIA operatives and law enforcers as they attempt to track down abducted children on missing persons lists.

It is unlikely that such a show could be screened in the UK. Nevertheless, there are concerns over how far UK broadcasters are prepared to push the boundaries of taste and legality in their chase for ratings. Once we become anaesthetised to live bonking and animal gratification, where can reality go next?

Wayne Garvie, head of entertainment at the BBC, says reality TV merely reflects the trends in society. 'I don't think sex on Big Brother is that shocking. Young people connected to the relationship between Michelle and Stuart, as it reflected their own social mores.' He adds that reality TV can also serve the public interest, citing Jamie's School Dinners as an example.

What is certain, he says, is that reality, in its broadest definition, will survive and prosper. 'Reality TV is relatively low cost, and is a TV event in each season's schedule,' he says. 'It brings in viewers who wouldn't watch regularly, and is crucial to the commercial broadcasters in bringing in advertising.'

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