Russian Reality Television
“We don’t want the television script good. We want it Tuesday.”
Text Marina Lukanina and Irina Gavrilova
Experts who study the mass media have noted that the 21st century ushered in a new era — the reality television era. While reality television can refer to any television format that lacks a script and follows a real narrative as it is unfolds spontaneously — such as a game show — the term “reality show” has come to refer to a particular set of conventions.
It was a Dutch program aired in 1991 that originated the format of selecting a group of strangers and putting them together in a living situation for an extended period of time to watch the relationships that develop. A key addition to this format was the introduction of a project with an ultimate goal — that is, a contest or competition in which a prize is at stake. Competitors are winnowed out by some mechanism: Participants leave the show based on the votes of an audience of viewers, a panel of judges, or their fellow contestants.
These formats became the basis for a wide variety of programs, from 20-something urbanites living together in a hip apartment to a diverse group left to survive the privations of life on an isolated island. One variant that had a particularly large global impact was the hit Big Brother, a reference to the snooping branch of an omniscient government that deprives its citizens of all privacy and thus freedom in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The “race,” “makeover” or transformation, and talent search are also popular premises for reality shows.
It is interesting that the genre was dreamed up in Holland, the country that produced the master artist Johannes Vermeer. His exquisitely detailed paintings offer a feast for the eyes, frequently in the form of a voyeuristic moment. His keen observational eye had a knack for catching a subject unawares, using the canvas to extend that ephemeral spying moment to an infinite audience. Thus, perhaps the reality show is merely an updated version of a bit of a cultural penchant. Whether or not that is the case, there is no denying that the reality show habit has broad appeal that transcends cultural boundaries. No matter how you read it, reality shows on TV are everywhere and hugely popular.
In Russia the first reality show was launched in 2001 by Channel TV 6. Called Behind the Glass [Za steklom], its concept was pretty straightforward: Three guys and three girls were set up to live in a special glass-enclosed apartment that was situated in the hall of Moscow’s Hotel Rossiya. Their everyday life was filmed and later aired on TV. Anyone had an opportunity to watch it live by standing in a long line at the hotel and getting access to the “glass window.” The three couples were competing to win a one-bedroom apartment; a scandal ensued when the winning couple split and had to divide up their prize equally. Arguments and quarrels, public shame and humiliation are generally inevitable attributes of the typical reality show.
Behind the Glass enjoyed very high TV ratings, though this was less a function of the charisma of the performers or the gripping events of their lives than the show’s prime time slot over an extended period of time on one of Russia’s major TV channels. The fame attained by the six people on the show served to prove the words of well-known Russian TV journalist Vladislav Listyev about the power of television. Listyev had said that if every day a certain TV channel showed the back of a horse, then within a couple of weeks that horse’s rear would be a celebrity throughout the country. Sure enough, his comments seem to describe the reality show phenomenon to a “T.”
The Last Hero [Posledny Geroi] was another popular reality show in Russia. Launched by Channel One, it placed 16 participants together on a tropical island and charged them with finding food, water, and anything else they needed for survival. The difficult living conditions, along with the significant prize money awaiting the winner, made the competition fi erce and the drama exciting. The contestants were Russian pop stars and actors, which heightened the show’s appeal and popularity. It received high TV ratings.
At present, the most popular reality show on Russian TV is House-2 [Dom-2]. Its predecessor, House, was launched in 2004, originally planned as a short-term project — the participants were to build a house. But its ratings success prompted a renewal of the premise in a successor show. Continued popularity guaranteed its longevity, and the show has been on the air ever since, earning itself a record-holding spot as the country’s longest-running reality show.
House-2 is set in the small village of Leshkovo, on the banks of the Istra River, close to the house that was built by the participants of the first show. (That house is a big, comfortable domicile in which one of the original contestants still lives.) There are also some small houses situated nearby, where the new contestants live during the show, as well as a guest house. The main meeting point for the show’s participants is an outdoor hearth, where all those working on the project meet to discuss the issues of the day, resolve any confl icts, introduce new participants, and select those who will be asked to leave. Since the show is on TV twice a day, viewers have plenty of opportunity to follow new developments.
Reality TV in a nutshell?: If every day a certain TV channel showed the back of a horse, then in a couple of weeks that horse’s rear would become recognizable throughout the country.
Factory of Stars (Fabrika Zvezd) is another popular reality show on Channel 1. In this show, young show-business hopefuls are selected to live together as they receive singing and dancing instruction and rehearse routines for the upcoming week’s program. Each broadcast consists of clips of the group’s interaction over the course of the week, both at work and at leisure, interspersed with real performances before a live audience and a panel of judges, who make comments and express their preferences. The show follows an “elimination rule” based on votes cast by viewers via mobile phone. Since viewers watch the contestants’ performances on stage and off, part of the drama is the tension between talent and personality: Should you vote for the person who has the stronger voice but the weaker character? The show ends when a single winner is chosen. The victor, who has already achieved some measure of fame by virtue of his or her appearance on the show, is typically offered a recording contract or other manifestation of an instant career. Each new cast represents a “project,” and the show is currently broadcasting is seventh project.
Psychologists tend to explain the popularity of reality shows in Russia and elsewhere as the subconscious desire of people to observe someone else’s life. Watching reality shows, they say, satisfies a feeling of curiosity and a thirst for drama and emotion. The average rating of reality shows has risen 20 percent since 1999, meaning that nearly 1.3 billion people watch them worldwide. Reality shows account for about 40 percent of all programming produced by European television channels. After years of high ratings in the United States, though, the popularity of reality shows has decreased there in recent years, perhaps an indication that audiences have finally reached their saturation point when it comes to reality TV.
Although at the beginning, Russian television producers were not certain that the genre would be financially successful in their country, reality entertainment quickly earned high ratings and a large fan base in Russia. One of the most lucrative aspects of reality shows is product placement, the appearance of an advertiser’s product being used by cast members during the show. House-2 holds the record for product-placement revenues at $4,000,000 per placement. The Last Hero and Factory of Stars occupy the second and third places, respectively, in this area, with product placement contracts bringing in about $3,000,000 a piece.
Reality shows face lots of criticism, specifi cally in regards to their influence on young viewers. The most common accusations in Russia include fostering unhealthy curiosity and demonstrating inappropriate behavior as a model for emulation. Nonetheless, Russian and foreign TV producers believe that the country has great potential for reality-show market development. And thus far, the genre has proven profitable in Russia.
So, as long as the circus keeps earning lots of bread, it looks like the reality show train will keep hurtling down the Russian track at full speed.