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Unreal is the new podcast for reality TV obsessives

Hosted by journalists Sirin Kale and Pandora Sykes, Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV charts the genre’s impact on culture

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the comments section of any red top clickbait piece about a former Love Islander or Big Brother housemate will invariably include one of the following questions: “who even is this?” or “why are they famous?”. In this context, these questions are obviously meant to be rhetorical – they’re usually posted by a man in his sixties who is upset because a woman wore a bikini or said a bad word on TV - but they’re actually questions worth asking. 

Reality TV goes against the grain: it’s entertainment by and for “everyday people”. It’s full of swearing, sex and screaming. It’s Jade Goody asking if “East Angular” is abroad, Hayley Hughes pondering if Brexit means we won’t have any more trees, a teenage girl punching her best friend in the face in front of Simon Cowell. Who are these people and why are they famous? Well, they’re ordinary people, famous for being ordinary. That’s the point.

For too long, reality TV has been derided. Fans of the genre are branded as airheads and anyone brave enough to be a contestant is routinely slated by tabloids and Twitter users alike. It’s seen as pointless, trashy, brain-rot. On the surface, that may seem true. But behind the BBLs and Botox, reality TV actually contains a fascinating insight into society.

In their new podcast, Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV, journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale unpack the genre’s cultural impact as well as some of the ethical questions raised by it. The series charts the rise (and fall) of shows like Big Brother, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and Love Island, featuring interviews with creators, producers, and the stars of the shows themselves.

Dazed spoke to Kale and Sykes, ahead of the release of Unreal on May 17.

What inspired you to create the podcast?

Pandora Sykes: It felt like such a prescient time to be digging into something which has only grown in clout and controversy. There have always been rumblings of discontent about reality TV but in recent years, they have turned into roars – which are harder to ignore. It felt the house of cards was, if not collapsing, then changing shape. Simon Cowell killed off X Factor, Keeping Up With The Kardashians was axed (although not for long) and the future of Love Island felt - or perhaps feels, time will tell this summer - like it was hanging in the balance. 

Sirin Kale: It felt like the conversation around reality TV ethics in recent years had grown louder and more difficult to ignore, particularly following the heartbreaking suicides of two ex-Love Island contestants, one of their partners, and host Caroline Flack. It felt right to dig into this genre which has given me so much viewing pleasure over the years, but also increasingly leaves me feeling ethically conflicted, and I've loved being able to review my favourite shows with a critical eye. 

Why do you think some people are snobby about reality TV?

Pandora Sykes: Firstly, because the people being filmed are ‘ordinary’. They have no discernible talent – except a desire to be on camera, arguably a skill of sorts – and detractors of the genre cannot understand why we adorn these celetoids with fame and fortune. To which I say: imagine life without The GC? Secondly, because historically, people on telly were white, middle-class, with RP accents. And then of course you have people getting drunk, having sex and arguing on telly – women, especially, aren't meant to act like this. A lot of people maintain that reality TV is brain rot; it doesn't further your mind, or fill it with information. But then I think, it depends on what you see as education.

Sirin Kale: Because it’s a truly demotic form of entertainment, in which ordinary people become stars. Also, because it's a genre that’s traditionally coded female, meaning that it’s often dismissed by men who can think nothing better of watching hours and hours of sport every weekend. 

“A lot of people maintain that reality TV is brain rot; it doesn't further your mind, or fill it with information. But then I think, it depends on what you see as education” – Pandora Sykes

What can reality TV tell us about our society and culture? 

Pandora Sykes: Reality TV touches almost every aspect of society, be it beauty, fashion, celebrity, dating, the home, politics – even farming, thanks to Kaleb Cooper. It tells us that a reality star can get into The White House. It tells us that a Calabasas family of five women can rewrite beauty ideals so that what women most want to be, now, is an ethnically ambiguous combination of tiny-waisted, big-bottomed and raven-haired.

Sirin Kale: I think a lot about how shows like Ex on the Beach demonstrate a really rancid streak of misogyny, or the restrictive beauty norms that see the female cast of Geordie Shore change their appearances beyond recognition with every successive series. I'm fascinated by the dating dynamics in Love Island and what this tells us about straight dating culture – and the racist norms it reinforces. And I think that Real Housewives is a fascinating portrayal of wealth, privilege, and anxieties around female ageing.

Where do you see the future of reality TV going?

Pandora Sykes: Well, it's not going anywhere as a format. It's true that shows like The Swan – a plastic surgery competition where women in their 30s would submit to upwards of 12 procedures – or Something About Miriam, would not be made now. It's also true that Simon Cowell would not get away with speaking to X Factor hopefuls like he did in the early 00s now.

The shows people love now are softer, sweeter, more optimistic. The aftercare has been prodigiously beefed up on shows like Love Island, where there is now 14 months of free support after you come off the show. And commissioners seem to be considering the moral implications of their shows, much more than they did in the early 00s, when it was a total gold rush and they were just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Sirin Kale: Audiences have lost their taste for blood and for the most part don't like seeing contestants being manipulated or upset. I think we're also going to see a push towards the ‘authenticity’ that characterised the earlier days of the genres – audiences are tired of the aspiring influencers who flock to reality TV to turbocharge their careers, and would rather see more ‘normal people’ captured in unguarded moments, rather than the hyper-produced shows we're currently seeing a proliferation of. Also, just more reality TV in general.

What do you hope people will take away from the podcast?

Pandora Sykes: A big old nostalgia hit, of course. But more importantly, to consider the evolution of the genre, in the last two decades, and how it's changed the way we live now.

Sirin Kale: I hope that it makes viewers engage more critically with what they see on screens, and recognise how much it has been constructed. Very little reality TV really reflects reality, everything is edited, which is something viewers often lose sight of. I hope they think about the impact on participants, and use their consumer power to push for better safeguards for those who choose to go on reality shows.

And I hope they enjoy the podcast! It was such a privilege to work on, even if it meant making tough calls about which shows to include – we had to kill lots of our babies, as there are simply too many shows to be included. So please don't @ us if your favourite shows aren't there.

Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV, is a new 10-part audio documentary for Radio 4 and BBC Sounds, written and presented by journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale. It launches on May 17.