Monday, 20 September 2010

Neighbourhood watching

As the last few clumps of firework ash slowly drop from the skies over Elstree, Big Brother fans will be contemplating life without their favourite dose of carefully stage-managed 'reality'. After ten years spent dominating the schedules, the front pages of the tabloids, and conversations around the water-cooler, TV junkies are facing an uncertain future.

Or are they? It turns out that Channel 4 has another trick up its sleeve to satiate our hunger for interminable shows about ordinary people - stretching that particular definition to breaking point in the process. 'Seven Days' is a bold new concept in democratic documentary programming, in effect turning editorial control over to the viewers.

Focusing on the lives of the eclectic people of London's Notting Hill, the new show is described as "part-reality show, part-soap and part-documentary." Presumably, the eclecticism might actually involve a slightly more diverse crowd than the well-heeled white faces who exclusively populate the borough in the mind of Richard Curtis.

Ostensibly another long-running show about regular people doing regular things, it promises to make the output of Mike Leigh look like Michael Bay's back catalogue. But what's really different this time, is the role that viewers will play in the ongoing series.

According to executive producer Stephen Lambert, "This programme not only disobeys that conventional reality TV rule, it actively encourages it, through a new interactive part of the show called Chat-Nav." This oddly named function will enable viewers to connect with the show's characters between episodes, "offering advice on dilemmas and decisions they are making in their lives." It's not enough that these people will be suffering the trials and tribulations of every day life in front of a bank of cameras, they'll also have illiterate teenagers from Birmingham advising them on how to handle that big job interview.

Since the show takes place in the 'real world', its participants will also be encouraged to discuss pressing social issues - which hopefully will amount to more than just Katie Price's parenting skills or Gemma Arterton's shorts. Given the current state of debate around current affairs, it's a little ambitious to expect everyday people to get caught up in a heated exchange around matters of "religion, morality and sexuality." If the show's cast are anything like the 'ordinary people' we've seen on Big Brother, we'll be lucky if they know how to boil an egg.

Channel 4 might be trying to convince us that they've selected a fascinating cast of 'real people', but the claim that they "wouldn't think twice about revealing all about their lives" suggests another group of intolerable exhibitionists.

Another issue that may hinder the success of this admittedly bold concept, is the troubling issue of self-awareness. It's now commonplace for anyone leaving a reality show to complain about damning character assassinations planned in the editors' room. As though anyone with more than a few weeks' experience on Avid could misrepresent a mild-mannered university student as a chain-smoking, racist nymphomaniac.

With the show being aired in real time, the participants will be able to see how they're coming across to the general public and adapt their behaviour accordingly. The moment they see how the press is interpreting their behaviour, it's guaranteed that they'll dial those characteristics up to 11, making the fly-on-the-fourth-wall show about as authentic as Balamory.

Lambert might claim that "Seven Days is a new kind of reality, what happens when you take the walls down. In reality shows like Big Brother in the past we have put people in an enclosed space and watched what happened to them. Seven Days is going to break down those walls and break all the normal rules."

Unfortunately, the biggest rule the show looks set to break, is the unwritten one about "Ignore thy neighbour". Modern London life has become so insular that if someone's house caught fire, their neighbours would only intervene to ask them to keep the noise down. If we struggle to care about the people who live on our own street, what makes Channel 4 think we'll give two hoots about someone else's neighbours?

1 comment:

  1. Let's see what happens. Very pleased channel 4 is continuing with this format!