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Has Reality Television And The BBC Hit An All Time Low?

Has Reality Television And The BBC Hit An All Time Low?

Has Reality Television And The BBC Hit An All Time Low?
28 May 2015

Reality TV has always been a game of diminishing returns but could this be the moment that the genre hit rock bottom? 

The BBC is currently seeking applicants for a new show called Britain's Hardest Worker, calling out for a mix of unemployed, under-employed and those on the minimum wage, all of whom must be earning under £15,500, to be pitted against one another to "prove [themselves] through a series of challenges" and win a cash prize of £15,000.

It is being made by production company Twenty Twenty, who told Graduate Fog that 25 of the UK's lowest-paid workers, "will be put to the test in a series of challenges and tasks. At the end of each episode, those who have produced the least will be eliminated and by the end of the process, just one worker will remain."

They are currently, "trying to get people of all ages and backgrounds to take part", and an example flyer appealing to young graduates can be seen below.

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Understandably, people have reacted with dismay at the idea, claiming that it will exploit vulnerable people for entertainment and add to the so-called 'poverty porn' genre which gained notoriety through the likes of programmes such as Channel 4's Benefits Street. There is certainly more than a whiff of The Hunger Games about it, with desperate people encouraged to scrap against each other to claim what is, in reality, a pretty paltry prize.

Marketed as an opportunity for people who have not been noticed in the job market - particularly young graduates struggling since gaining their degree - to make a name for themselves by demonstrating their abilities and work ethic, it's being pitched as if it's The Apprentice for poor people. 

When asked by Graduate Fog whether the show would “exploit desperate young workers for entertainment value”, Twenty Twenty replied that the show was, “a serious social experiment for BBC Two which investigates just how hard people in the low wage economy work. Each week the contributors - who are all in work or actively looking - will experience a different 'blue collar' role as the series explores the truth about Britain's work ethic. Throughout the series, the contributors are rewarded for the work they do.”

Given that the winner receives just £15,000, it's hard to believe that the other 24 contestants will be 'rewarded' with too much. And, given that Big Brother was initially touted as a 'serious social experiment', you can be excused for taking that statement with an enormous pinch of salt. In addition, Twenty Twenty have previous been responsible for Benefits Britain 1949, whereby three current benefits claimants spent a week living under conditions from the year of the birth of the welfare state, a show described by The Telegraph as "tasteless and exploitative".

At least on The Apprentice people enter the show out of ego and can be laughed at with impunity, safe in the knowledge that even the failures will return to nice, safe jobs. Potential contestants on Britain's Hardest Worker are literally fighting for their livelihood - all they want is a job.

Not to mention the bile-inducing 'blue collar' premise of the challenges. The insinuation is undoubtedly that the working class cannot be expected to perform any other form of work; that this is all that they are capable of. While there is nothing wrong with blue collar jobs, the fact that someone is currently unemployed is no indication of their ability to take on white collar roles: this simplification will just embed the idea in the viewing public's mind that labour-intensive work is all that low-paid workers are good for. If the Beeb are trying to bring about more opportunity for the disenfranchised and underpaid masses of Britain they're certainly looking at it with tunnel vision. 

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The entire premise of the show implicitly suggests that the reason these people are unemployed, or low-paid, is because they haven't worked hard enough: that the quality of job and amount of pay one receives is proportional to how much effort you put in. In a nation where social mobility is at its lowest level in decades, this is patently nonsense. What if there are simply no jobs in your area? What if you can't afford to intern for free in your dream job, but a less-deserving, richer candidate can? What if you couldn't afford to go to University? Hard work won't do anything about any of that.

If the BBC truly wanted to draw attention to the ongoing plight of Britain's low-paid and jobless - never more relevant than with the recent election of a Conservative-majority government who talk of 'shirkers and strivers', then surely there is a better way to do it that this? Even if this show is made with the best intentions possible, it is skirting far too close to the wind by placing it in a genre that, at its worst, can be downright nasty and exploitative and, at its best, tabloid gossip fodder of no real benefit to anyone.

Moreover, why is the BBC even attempting to enter this area of schlocky realism? Shock value tactics from Channel 4 are well-established, but why does the Beeb need to go there? For an organisation that needs to be politically neutral, creating a reality show on such a sensitive subject is lunacy. It's well-known that the image of reality contestants can be formed on the whim of the show's editor: they could look like hard-working model employees, or they could be made to look stupid, unmotivated and worthy of ridicule. And, let's face it, it's far more likely to be the latter - after all, which version is going to create more column inches, make people angry, and increase those all-important viewing figures?

Who knows what the BBC's motivation is, but this is dangerous territory and the corporation should be above it. Make genuine, interesting shows about the jobs market, the welfare state and the economy in general and get a real debate going. Inform, educate and entertain: in that order.

Follow Dave Fawbert on Twitter.

(Images: BBC/Rex)