THE ongoing controversy over the 'realness' of reality TV erupted again last week when producers of the X Factor admitted they had autotuned the vocals of already talented auditionees. What was more shocking than the output of the microphones being tweaked in post-production was the clumsiness of how it was done. Almost instantly, the incident was being reported on Twitter, recognised by an audience now familiar with the sound of an autotuned vocal, such is its prevalence in chart music.
Autotuning is the practice of using an audio processor to change the pitch of a singing voice to erase bum notes, but too much of it creates a robotic effect, a sound noticeable throughout the opening programme last Saturday. If X Factor – a relatively innocent talent show format – isn't real, then what is?
In addition, the creation of hugely popular acts on the back of reality television – Susan Boyle, Jedward, and possibly last night's Dublin X Factor contestant Mary Byrne – is no accident, and is as carefully sculpted as a manufactured band. However, the success depends on the novelty of the individual being a so-called 'real' person, the key word for producers being 'likeability'.
It has been obvious for some time that Big Brother has been heavily edited to present certain contestants in various negative or positive lights to fit with the narrative of the programme, and its 'realness' has been eroded as fewer 'real' people entered. But although Big Brother was the dawn of reality TV, it now appears almost old-fashioned compared to what came after it.
The trend of 'shock reality' programmes saw everything from live plastic surgery to people competing to marry someone they didn't even know, from celebrities eating bugs to contestants living in physically and psychologically damaging environments. But shock can only go so far. "I think people's appetite for extreme television isn't there," said Stephen McCormack, chief executive of Straywave, a production company on the up following the success of TV3's Celebrity Salon. Straywave has two new Irish programmes, RTE's Fade Street and TV3's Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum, on the way this autumn.
"You can't go for shocking anymore because you have to keep upping the game as you do it," McCormack said. Instead, he sees the future in stories, which is where the post-authentic age of reality television comes in.
The breakout success in reality TV of the past few years isn't real at all. The Hills, a supposed reality television show following the lives of the young, rich and beautiful in LA, was in fact a scripted programme, as was its New York offshoot, The City. McCormack wants to replicate that format's success in Ireland with Fade Street, which will document the lives of young and attractive Dubliners. "It's a scripted genre, there's no bones about that," McCormack said. "But they're not actors... it's about what it's like to be 21 in Dublin. You'll either like it or you won't. I don't think Vincent Browne will be watching it."
The success of such formats lies in the fact that people will watch something as 'reality' television, even though they know it's scripted, as long as the stories are captivating and the 'characters' are intriguing. Reality goes out the window.
On the flip side, many of the reality programmes at the moment are quite benign. No one could have predicted the global success of Come Dine With Me, or the fact that people will watch vaguely famous people go about their daily lives while being followed by a camera crew, of which the hugely successful Keeping Up With The Kardashians is emblematic.
What has to be remembered is that there is a generation of TV viewers for whom reality TV is normal TV. There is nothing novel about it.
Television and society have always had a symbiotic relationship, and this younger generation has created personalised reality television formats of their own, erasing personal privacy and documenting their lives on YouTube and social networks.
Real reality is becoming an artefact of the past.