The biggest problem with trash TV like The Vanessa Show and Jerry Springer is that it's not disreputable enough, argues Mark Ryan
The producers of The Vanessa Show have been unfairly treated for using actors as guests, instead of 'real people'. What difference does it make whether Vanessa Feltz's victim guests are real?
The purpose of the Vanessa/Trisha/ Oprah/Springer shows is to entertain. In the TV age they are about the closest we get to vaudeville and the sort of humiliation theatre that was the staple of musical halls right into this century. I was personally relieved to hear that many of The Vanessa Show's 'real people' were actors. It would be very depressing if there were so many people out there willing to humiliate themselves so readily before an audience of millions.
The perverted aspect of the The Vanessa Show scandal is the complaint that we have somehow been cheated because the self-abasement was faked.
The distinction between the fake and the authentic in confessional TV is a spurious one. The genre itself relies to such an extent on emotional excess that it is impossible to say where the act stops and reality begins. What, for example, of a real couple who choose to spice up their boring lives by going on Vanessa with one of the usual tales of betrayal, domestic violence, love triangles or whatever? Are they actors or frauds, and who, of all those who have appeared on these shows, would cast the first stone?
As for the actress who does this for a living, if she can spout the usual claptrap about emotional scars and 'speaking out' about her suffering, then why not get her on the programme? Since almost every sentence uttered on these shows is cliché, it seems a good place for the hordes of unemployed actors to kickstart their careers.
Even if everybody who appeared on confessional TV were committed to telling only the truth, it would still be impossible to distil what is real from what is false. The private foibles on which confessional TV feeds cannot be subject to the criteria of truth and objectivity which we apply to public life. That is why civilised societies have drawn a clear distinction between public life, in which objective judgement is not only possible but essential, and private life, where the subjective and arbitrary hold sway.
In private life, perception and reality are mixed up and almost impossible to disentangle. If a woman thinks her husband is being mean and nasty to her, it is not really possible to verify whether this is true or not. It is their private affair which they have to sort out as best they can. If they also choose to engage a few million other people in their petty affairs, that too is their business. To try to impose the criteria of authenticity which are proper to public life on to the tangled web of privacy makes any discussion about the need for 'standards' nonsensical.
Confessional TV is trash and could never be otherwise. The only serious criticism worth making of it is that it is not disreputable enough. If we must have it, I'd rather have Jerry Springer and his riotous crew than the flesh-creeping sincerity of the Trishas and Vanessas who think they are promoting the emotional wellbeing of the nation's couch potatoes.
Trash is not the problem: every age has it. But there is a problem when trash is treated as serious TV. The widespread response to the scandal of The Vanessa Show fakes was that it undermined the seriousness of the genre as a whole. Robert Kilroy aired the view that such scandal brought more serious programmes such as his into disrepute. Across the Atlantic, Oprah Winfrey laid similar charges against Jerry Springer for his increasingly wild and raucous show. Winfrey's complaint reminded me of the old hooker who blames the new girl on the block for bringing the whole profession into disrepute.
In their shocked response to the scandal of the fake victims, and their promises of greater quality control, Vanessa Feltz's superiors at the BBC obviously believe that confessional TV has a serious role to play in the moral education of the country. They seem to think that we should take seriously all that nonsense about how the TV confession helps the victim and millions of others 'come to terms with' their condition. Instead of drowning the whole farce in a chorus of derision, they expect us to watch earnestly and learn.
Confessional TV is not the main culprit in the dumbing down of television. The real culprits are the TV executives who think rubbish has some educative value. The result of their pious concerns is to blur the distinction between what is serious and what deserves no more than a good laugh. Imposing criteria of authenticity on what is fundamentally unreal is an important step on the road to emptying reality and authenticity of all meaning.
In their concern to impose strict quality control on confessional TV, John Birt and his colleagues at the BBC have blurred the more important issue of upholding standards in factual reporting. Perhaps it is not too surprising that while emotional TV is told to get its unruly house in order and become more serious, real, objective TV - from news reporting to current affairs - becomes more emotional and faked.
Confessional TV is an easy target for the network chiefs. There is a ready-made chorus of disapproval they can join, which makes them look committed to upholding high standards in broadcasting. But the problem is not standards as such - it is knowing what standards should be insisted upon. TV that is real and objective should be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny; TV that comes from the gutter should be left there. Unfortunately, the networks seem to find it increasingly difficult to discriminate between the two.
Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999