'Entertainment', profit and exploitation

August 16, 2009

Anyone with a basic sense of humanity can take heart from the fact that 2DayFM radio host Kyle Sandilands lost his lucrative $1 million contract to judge Australian Idol.

His radio show with Jackie O (worth $2 million) is also being investigated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. However, after more than two weeks "recess", the show was due back on air on August 17.

The station, not just the show itself, should be subject to an investigation over whether or not it deserves to operate its broadcast licence after the truly atrocious stunt Sandilands and Jackie O pulled on July 29. It was an astonishing piece of human exploitation.

There were many things wrong with the shocking segment in which a mother put her unwilling 14-year-old daughter on air (the mother admitted on air her daughter didn't want to take part) to be strapped to a lie-detector and asked questions about her sex life.

However, the segment only caused controversy after the young woman revealed she had been raped as a 12-year-old.

But regardless of the outcome, the stunt was an abominable piece of sexual exploitation of a 14-year-old.

It would have been abuse enough of her most basic rights if her mother had carried the stunt out in private. But to subject her, without consent, to such humiliation in a high-rating public forum raises it to another level.

The station sought to exploit this humiliation for profit, through what it believed would be higher ratings, and therefore advertising cash.

The August 3 Media Watch revealed it is far from the first highly exploitative stunt by Sandilands and Jackie O's show that preyed on the vulnerable. A couple of weeks earlier, a stunt was organised with Saveth Chorn, a Cambodian refugee from Pol Pot renamed "Sally" on air by the station. She entered a competition to have her niece, who she has never seen, brought out from the US.

The "twist" was that "Sally" was told she would have to pick which of three doors her niece was behind — otherwise the niece would be flown straight back home.

"Sally" picked wrong.

It took eight minutes of tears and begging from the two women before Sandilands and Jackie O finally agreed to back down and give the niece and aunt their promised week together.

The inevitable justification is this it is what the "public" wants.

But is this true?

The initial shock value of such sickening stunts is an attention-grabber — it can pull a crowd in the same way a car crash does. People know it is horrible but can't help but look.

But beyond initial shock value, there is little lasting appeal. The trend in reality TV is away from humiliation of, and cruelty towards, participants.

Producers of shows like Master Chef and So You Think You Can Dance have made a conscious decision to make their shows softer, friendlier and less nasty than past reality TV shows.

This reflects public attitudes, as does last year's axing of Big Brother due to poor ratings.

The first season of Big Brother in Australia, in 2001, was partly successful because the contestants formed a bond of solidarity that was a way of surviving the experience. This humanised the show.

In following seasons, its producers went out of their way to introduce endless new humiliations for contestants and tricks to undermine any collective solidarity. They were ultimately rewarded with its axing.

Far from being what the public wants, cheap and exploitative stunts suit the owners of the private media corporations. They cost relatively little for immediate shock value attracting attention — and advertisers don't care how an audience as gathered, as long as it is there to sell to.

Reality TV is extremely cheap to make — actors don't have to be paid for a start.

The same structural crisis in capitalism that drove the bubble of financial speculation is reflected in the private media corporations' desperation for the cheapest production.

Reality TV is cheaper and less risky than investing in well-written, well-acted and well-produced drama or comedy — even though there is a strong audience for it.

It's what the corporate heads want, with their eyes on the bottom line, not the rest of us.

The widespread revulsion over the 2DayFM stunt caused Sandilands to lose his Idol job, something that would only occur if Channel Ten felt ratings, and therefore advertising revenue, were threatened. It is another sign that ordinary people are sickened by Sandilands and what he represents.

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