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Is it time to put an end to Italian-style reality shows?

A look at a format in crisis

Is it time to put an end to Italian-style reality shows? A look at a format in crisis

Reality shows have dominated TV culture for the past two decades, but over time many old 20-year-old formats have lost bite and ratings. In 2023, the audience following these shows, Big Brother VIP in the lead, remains oceanic even if diminished compared to the editions hosted by Barbara D'Urso, (the average share of the latest edition of Mediaset's reality show is about 20 percent per episode) but lately the strength of reality shows seems at the very least compromised: earlier this month there was talk of a rant by Piersilvio Berlusconi «for too many swear words and vulgarities» arrived, according to Corriere della Sera, after weeks of «calls for production to correct its course with respect to behaviors of the contestants of the house that are degenerating and that he believes would be an absolute disrespect to the public»; Last week, on the other hand, it was Carlo Rienzi of Codacons who defined reality TV «a national shame» plagued by a «viewership hemorrage» denouncing the «vertical decadence» of the format and lamenting «the absolute nothingness on which these shows are based [which] has now grown tiresome to even the most hardened fans, who just can't take any more of swearing, bullying, vulgarity, and empty arguments», branding reality shows in their entirety as «obsolete and unpresentable». And although such talk has been going on since the first edition of Big Brother, considering how perhaps the program's producers themselves have realized its degeneration, it is perhaps appropriate to ask again: have reality shows had their day?

When they were born, before the digital revolution, reality shows offered us a brutally honest and unfiltered type of television, far removed from the polite TV lounges of the 1990s. Even back then, gags about the low cultural stature of these shows abounded - just think that clips of the trashiest Big Brother auditions were broadcast by Mediaset itself during Gialappa's programs. Over time, the iconography of the protagonist of these shows came to be better defined: figures such as Pietro Taricone and Marina La Rosa demonstrated, before the influencers, that one did not need to be able to sing, dance or act to achieve enormous levels of fame. Over time the phenomenon grew, structuring itself further, and leading to a flourishing of this format across every streaming platform thinkable. Today, without a doubt, the reality TV market is saturated: from American series about rich housewives and luxury real estate agents, to every conceivable beach-themed date show, through every possible variation of Jersey Shore to great classics like Big Brother and L'Isola dei Famosi it seems that these reality shows, to quote Bill Paxton in Aliens, «are coming out the goddam walls». Yet, in England, Collider wonders if Love Island, whose ninth season has recorded rather low ratings, has not become boring; the legendary status of the Kardashians seems to be in crisis while Time, last week, reflected on signs of the incipient decline of The Bachelor, whose contestants now openly declare that they are only there to earn a following on Instagram.

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To return to Rienzi's words, to say that reality shows and their contestants are vulgar is to point out the obvious: it is their trashy nature that has brought them this far. The reality show formula was not created for the edification of viewers but to satisfy a desire somewhere between the anthropological and the voyeuristic that has since degenerated into trash and guilty pleasure. And considering how in Italy the level of public television is still tragically low, if what happens in the Big Brother studio irritates Mediaset's AD himself perhaps a kernel of truth exists, perhaps the vulgarity of these programs has stopped being liberating and has instead become systemic, from exception has become rule. Even the studio guests, boldly dubbed "pundits," so involved in discussing details of etiquette of no importance, seem to have stepped out of The Hunger Games with their grotesque showtime mises and cheesy dramas - none of them seem to live in the real world but they are still light years away from the glamour of a real celebrity. Reality imitates memes.

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And even assuming that the viewers have not grown tired of the screaming, the futile bickering, the outright tackiness, and the extremeley low caliber of the contestants (the latter, perhaps, is what keeps the ratings high after all), it can still be asserted that the "reality" element of reality shows has largely disappeared with the saturation of the market and the transformation of these programs into real dramas with literal scripts. The, so to speak, documentary element had already failed years ago, however, when the producers of Acapulco Shore and other more "adult" reality shows had to tickle the audience's fancy with nudity and sex scenes and the contestants themselves had ceased to be real people (the sometimes brutal sincerity of Floriana, from the 2003 edition, is now just a distant memory) and had been replaced by the fake-tanned, gym-bloated fauna that populates the lower strata of the Italian entertainment industry. Today being on a reality show means losing, not gaining, aspirationality: to engage in this form of trash represents, culturally speaking, a dishonor. Only Luca Argentero, in 20-plus years of Big Brother, has managed to redeem himself  -a statistic that is not too surprising considering the demographics of the other contestants. Even Pio and Amadeo, hardly two gentlemen, said a few days ago: «It is more dignified to do a menial job than to go on a reality show». 

Indeed, compared to the past, many dynamics have changed. Initially, for example, it was thought that the winner of the reality show of the day would gain celebrity status--which turned out to be very false with former contestants depressed after their ephemeral fame faded in a few months plunging them into the anonymity from which they came. Even the casting of the contestants did not improve: after exhausting the repertoire of kitsch, the producers called upon that of second-rate celebrities, gradually going down the hierarchy and ending up scraping the bottom of the barrel with semi-famous "entrepreneurs and models" on Instagram who punctually adhere to the cliché of the basic Italian Chad guy who always keeps his shirt unbuttoned, his pants too short and tight and strictly without socks of which this country has an endless supply. Not that initially the contestants were worthy of the Nobel Prize, but there was a desire to sample the real country and see what would happen -nowadays, however, the reality TV contestants all seem to come from the same factory, their lack of conversation topics and professional qualifications as much a part of their character as the motivational quotes in their Instagram caption, the cheesy tattoos, the siliconed curves, and that yassified, standardized, and artifactual beauty, not at all natural, so typical of Mediaset programs and gossip magazines.

If amidst this sea of boredom and discomfort one reality show seems to be successful, rather, it is Physical: 100, a program that in true Squid Game style relies on devastating physical tests and is so real that some contestants have even broken a rib. Like many modern programs, Physical erases the distinction between talent show and reality show, since in addition to the actual competition the show also includes an element of reality-style storytelling for the contestants. There the protagonists are athletes, the reality of those competitions is all felt - somewhat like Takeshi's Castle but also for more "craft" or skill-based programs that lie between talent and reality shows such as The Great British Bake Off or Forged in Fire. The very success of Physical, which some say is the forerunner of the advent of the Korean reality show in Europe, perhaps demonstrates the limits of a format that, especially in Italy, struggles to change but above all to represent the country and become a phenomenon without drawing on the registers of the grotesque, the pathetic and the cringeworhty. In a world that is hungry for authenticity, or at least even a semblance of seriousness, reality shows should not disappear, only improve. And that is why the trashy format of the Anglo-Saxon/American or Italian reality show (which adds the trashy studio banter to the previous format) has a way of climbing out of the ditch it has dug for itself, by dint of self-indulgence and supine adherence to an ever-changing script, now reduced to a tired formula.