Core Response 2: The Economic Factors of Sensationalism
Chad Raphael’s “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV” distinguishes various Reali-TV formats “according to how much each relies on nontraditional labor… and production inputs (Raphael 124). Seemingly once the predominant format of Reali-TV during the 1980s, network newsmagazines are now a format that have been pushed aside by what shows that focus on has-been/minor celebrities, bachelors, housewives, and so on. Considering the news magazine and its origins of freelance crews, low budget reenactments, and amateur footage (in some cases), I am interested in the way in which such programs, which heavily relied/relies on the “same mix of studio and location footage as the evening news” have since shifted as a means of ‘keeping up with the Kardashians.’ As reality TV and its production value increases, we now see the hyper-stylized and hyper-dramatized news magazine - if this ‘improved’ format may still bear this title.
This interest stems from somewhat of personal experience. In 2003, a recent high school graduate went missing in my hometown, and the story became the focus of local media for months as clue after clue led to many wrong turns and dead ends. The story is tragic and certainly bizarre in its own right - if anyone is interested in the case itself, you may read a brief overview about it here.
In 2008, this case was picked up by Investigation Discovery’s show Solved. This show operates much like 48 Hours; it is shot on location and edited by professionals, includes minimal, low-budget reenactment, and interviews with police, family, and friends. Much of it narrative relies on following the search for Kelly Bullwinkle and subsequently moves into the search for her killer(s), and its conclusion leaves the audience with assurance that procedural justice has been ‘served’ and another case has been ‘solved’. [A short side note is also worth mentioning: interestingly enough, a show like Solved also speaks to Raphael’s later discussion of reality TV and globalization – though this aired in the US in 2008, we received word from family that it premiered in Ireland as recent as 2013.]
Fast-forward to November, 2014. The Bullwinkle case was once again picked up by Lifetime’s I Killed My BFF. Like Solved, this show contains interviews, on location shooting, and follows the case from start to finish. However, it is riddled with over-the-top reenactments that make this seem like more of a fictional narrative than a ‘news magazine’ of sorts. Instead of heavily focusing on the case itself, the show (which self claims to be a ‘documentary series’) focuses on a narrative of ‘the Goth lifestyle’ and sexual experimentation. Obviously, given that this is a Lifetime series, there are certain expectations and levels of drama immediately attached to the show and its overarching narrative. Nevertheless, what is important to consider here is format. As a means of competing in the current climate of reality television, crime ‘documentary series’ must amp up both drama and quality. It is not enough to provide short reenactments dispersed through an episode – to show the drama, reenactments seemingly become the entire episode which makes one question whether they are watching a ‘news magazine’ or a ‘based on’ fiction.
From news magazines to the Kardashians and so on, we see a subtle but approaching shift. Quality increases as drama increases, and money is required to increase both. The news magazine itself has seemed to morph from news to tabloid (and may well be on its way to fiction). As we continue to move forward on this path, it is worth questioning the future economics of Reali-TV. Though reality television is still cheaper than the one-million-per-episode drama, how long will this last?