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In this passage, the writer explores some of the reasons for the popularity of reality TV shows
such as “The X Factor”.
It is a Saturday night in the northernmost fringes of London. Outside an anonymous
building with blanked-out windows, a discarded plastic bag swirls in the breeze.
At first glance it seems a miserable place. But in fact this is where dreams are made and
broken. Because this is where, every weekend,
The X Factor
goes live.
The X Factor
, brainchild of Simon Cowell, is the most popular programme on Saturday
night. Each week, hundreds make the pilgrimage to be part of the live audience, and
millions of us tune in at home to watch.
As a result, many of us will spend more time in the virtual company of the contestants
than we do with our real-life friends and family. In a modern world in which local
communities have become increasingly fractured, where relatives live further apart
from each other than ever before and where one in five of us will never speak to our
neighbours, Cowell’s creation seems to be filling the void.
And yet despite the fact that more of us seem to be tuning in than ever before, relatively
little is known about who watches and why. All we know is that
The X Factor
it signifies the reinvigoration of weekend family viewing or the disintegration of civilised
society—is a reality-television phenomenon.
So why, after a decade of phone-in rows, vote-rigging accusations and celebrity-hungry
wannabes with bloated egos, does the British public remain so in love with reality
By now most of us know that the version of reality on offer is one shaped by a
multimillion-pound business with slick production values, and yet we willingly suspend
our disbelief week after week, month after month, in the name of entertainment. Is
there something lacking in our daily lives that draws us so inexorably into Cowell’s web?
We do get swept up in it, wanting to be behind somebody, wanting them to do well.
That’s why producers will make the hard-luck story—those little snippets of someone
struggling in a dead-end job—because that enables us to feel we have a sort of connection.
And perhaps, in a world increasingly dominated by Facebook and Twitter, where
friendships are made and broken at the click of the computer mouse, we feel more
comfortable engaging with someone on the other side of the screen rather than chatting
to them over the garden fence, as our grandparents might once have done. If we are
already sharing the details of our private lives in Tweets and status updates, are we also
becoming more accustomed to the notion of putting our intimate selves on display for
the entertainment of others?
It’s no coincidence that our love affair with
The X Factor
is so potent right now, more
than ever before, as Britain endures a period of relative austerity. In a time of economic
hardship, we are seeking out the simple and cheap—family entertainment that makes
us feel part of something bigger. But the popularity of such shows may be traced back
even further—to the emergence of 19th-century periodicals which relied on reader
contributions. Reality TV is merely a manifestation of a very, very old craving. We
love sentimental stories, such as Dickens’ Little Nell; we love a tear jerker, and shows
The X Factor
are no more crass or exploitative than cheap sensational 19th-century
Yet it seems that 21st-century viewers are looking for more than just simple entertainment.
Part of the attraction is the sense of control
The X Factor
gives us: the sense that we
can put right wider social wrongs by voting for our favourite contestants and that
although our lives are being shaped by forces beyond our control—such as government
cutbacks, widespread job losses or social deprivation—the ability to have a say in what
happens to others in reality TV shows gives us back a much-needed sense of power.
The most popular contestants almost always have a backstory of personal triumph over
adversity which enables us to feel that we are helping them succeed, that we are giving
them a break even if no one else will. And perhaps this is why Susan Boyle, who grew
up in a council house and was bullied as a child for her learning difficulties, has proved
such an enduring figure.
Of course there are less noble motivations for watching, too: for every Susan Boyle there
is a caterwauling teenager who cannot hold a tune and yet remains convinced he or she
is destined for stardom. A part of us just loves it when people are awful and embarrass
themselves—but human nature is contradictory like that, and reality television allows
us to have it both ways.
In fact, most of us know we are being manipulated and that our emotional buttons
are being shamelessly pressed every time there is a lingering close-up of a tear-stained
contestant’s face recounting the traumatic time their grandmother’s budgerigar died.
But because we have become so accustomed to such televisual shorthand, we are
increasingly willing participants in the charade. We become, along with the contestants,
part of the performance.
Do we care that reality television is not actually real? That question misses the point.
Reality television is a completely constructed premise. None of the people would be in
it if we were just showing their normal lives. But what it does do is take human flesh and
blood and challenges it in situations that bring out a person’s true personality. That’s
why shows work, because the public is after authenticity . . . They want to support
people with talent and for them to win, but they punish pretension and two-facedness.
On the whole, the public are positive, but they are judgemental.
Perhaps this, in the end, is the key to Cowell’s success: he acknowledges that we crave
the appearance of reality, but that we also want the reassurance of a happy ending for
those who deserve it and retribution for those who do not.
Either that or we just want to laugh at the man with the comb-over singing an out-of-
tune Mariah Carey song.
Adapted from an article by
Elizabeth Day, in
The Observer
Explain why any
example of the writer’s
word choice
paragraph 1 (lines 1–2) helps to give the impression that the place she
describes is “miserable”.
Explain how effective you find the expression “pilgrimage” (line 6) as an
Show how another expression in the immediate context helps us
understand the meaning of “virtual” (line 8).
in your own words one
of the reasons why there is a “void”
which “Cowell’s creation seems to be filling” (line 12).

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