Where reality TV is real

Recently I have had a new obsession. After I wrote my last blog where I mentioned the backlash towards the female contestants on the most recent series of The Great British Bake Off, I realised that I needed to give it a go myself and make my own judgement call. So, I spent a whole week watching every episode whenever I had a spare 2 or 4 hours to put aside for a TGBBO binge. And it was just brilliant and all I’ve been doing since, in between working and sessions at the gym, is baking and eating cakes.

Reality TV is more popular than ever these days and everyone loves a bit of it every now and then, don’t they? So, even though I’m not a fan of most of the shows on offer in the UK, (although I do love The Apprentice and I’d like to take this opportunity now to apologise, on behalf of all Scousers, for the abomination that was Desperate Scousewives)  I would never judge someone for being a fan, except if they like, maybe, Geordy Shore. They’d get sooo judged…

I agree that perhaps a large proportion of TV viewers watch reality TV as a form of escapism, which is probably why the genre is so popular. However, I believe that these shows promote an unattainable life of glamour, sheer perfection, unceasing excitement and a never ending flow of cash when, in reality, that’s bollocks.

Now, let’s be honest. These kinds of reality TV shows truly exist either to (a) create/endorse celebrities and/or products, or, in the sense of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, (b) to promote an image of British business that is just a little bit bullshit. In essence, they are money makers. The producers behind the scenes of these shows are laughing all the way to the bank because they know exactly what the people of Britain want; to be given a brief glimpse of an often elusive lifestyle that is beyond our reach.

It is easy to criticise the materialism and celebrity worship found in most reality TV shows but with the state of the UK economy at the moment why would anyone want to return to the Kitchen Sink realism of the 50’s and 60’s? We’ve got fictional shows such as Shameless, we don’t need to see actual REAL LIFE, do we?

Since June 2012 I have lived and worked in Vietnam, so I haven’t been able to flick through the channels and fall into the clutches of a TOWIE episode for a while. Instead, I have had to watch about eight English speaking channels, half of which only show Thor or Source Code on repeat.

About three months ago, my friend, Vi Trang, introduced me to Vietnamese reality TV. She explained to me that these shows were very popular, in some cases, even on prime-time slots. You may be thinking, ‘well, duh!’ yes, reality TV in Britain is also shown during these times. But reality TV in Britain is nothing like these two shows:

Overcome Yourself (Vượt Lên Chính Mình)

The purpose of this reality TV show/gameshow is to help very poor people pay back their debts and finance their small family-run businesses.

The show opens telling the back-story of the contestants and their family then leads into three rounds. The 1st and 2nd rounds are called “Xóa nợ” (pay back the debt) when contestants have to overcome two challenges related to their jobs in 1 minute and 30 seconds. If they succeed, half of the debt will be reduced.

The final round is called “Cấp vốn” (financing): The contestants randomly choose two of the advertising panels of the sponsors for the show. There are different amounts of money at the back of each panel. The contestants receive this money and use it to support their life or business.

The Golden Tintinnabula (the small bell on an ox or horse’s neck)  – (Lục lạc vàng)

This heartwarming show helps poor households in rural areas from all over the country by gifting them with a couple of ox or buffalo.

Each year, philanthropists, together with local authorities give a couple of oxen or buffalo to families in difficulty (in each episode different families have different touching stories). Agriculturalists later train these families in how to take care of the cattle.

Funnily enough this show is broadcast every Sunday at 8.30 p.m. on one of the most popular Vietnamese channels.

And there are more where they came from.

When I heard about these shows I was immediately touched by the raw honesty of them. In a country that is affected so badly by poverty, rather than brushing it under the carpet, the Vietnamese media has embraced its responsibility to draw light to the problems. Of course there are still TV producers and businesses behind the scenes who are hoping to make a profit or promote their products, however, the most important thing to remember is that here, in Vietnam, poverty isn’t taboo.

On the contrary, the idea that Britain has a poverty problem is often scoffed at by our government and news agencies. The pantomime villain of British politics, Michael Gove, was once heard to have uttered such tripe as people are in poverty because of their own ‘decisions’ and are ‘unable to manage their finances’. Perhaps some re-education on this matter wouldn’t go amiss, Mr Gove?

But let’s be real, the poverty in Britain is nothing like the poverty found in Vietnam. Vietnamese poverty is hell. It is backbreaking work in unbearable temperatures. It is having a disability yet still needing to work at the same level as able bodied people in order to survive. It is doing whatever you can do to earn a dollar a day by breaking ice, going through bins to find recyclables, selling lottery tickets, selling your body. These are some of the jobs of the poorest poor.

Yet Britain has its poverty. Just take a read of Jack Monroe’s blog, A Girl Called Jack, which is filled with statistics and anecdotal evidence of the poverty that she has endured and that exists throughout the UK. We have people now who cannot buy enough food for their families because their housing costs are so expensive. We have pensioners who are struggling to afford their energy bills each month because the costs have sky-rocketed. We have millions of people unemployed, desperately seeking work because of a whole load of reasons that are not their fault. Poverty is insidious and it is growing in the UK.

Thankfully some newspapers, such as The Guardian, are embracing Jack’s message and the message of other activists and campaigners by bringing awareness to the problems. This is a great first step however I think we need to do more, perhaps by taking a leaf out of the Vietnamese’s book and doing something radical.

How about a TV show similar to Dragon’s Den but for people who want to set up or grow their own small business, like a family member who makes greetings cards but wants to be able to afford some advertising to get some customers and start a venture, or the friend who has always dreamt of training to be a masseuse but can’t afford to pay for the lessons because they have to live hand to mouth each month, or a bloke at the pub who has always talked about wanting to open up a pizzeria but has been in debt for as long as he can remember. There are millions of people all over Britain with creative and innovative ideas for their lives. They mightn’t set up multi-million pound enterprises, but at least they might get the chance to make a difference to their family’s lives. And that is really all that ever matters.

Britain has its needs and it is about time that the media accepts its full responsibility to help and improve the lives of the downtrodden and the debt-ridden families of our great country. Let there be no more articles printed blaming the poor for all and sundry, instead let us together call for change, a change that leads to the empowerment of the less fortunate in our own towns and cities.

I have loved watching The Great British Bake Off; the immense pressure to bake a perfect Victoria Sponge was like nothing I have felt before, but I would also love to watch something that pressured and challenged my country as a whole. This is about changing our culture from the inside out. We have to do it ourselves because no one else is going to. This is about us all doing what is honest, equal, good and right. And while we do so, let’s make poverty in Britain as taboo as a woman in 2013 showing her ankles.


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