Morals in television production – where did it all go wrong?

Morals in television production – where did it all go wrong?

7 up from michael apted seriesEmily Wright looks at the current morals in television programmes. How have we moved on from the fabulous Up series to the so-called popular “poverty porn” programmes such as the upcoming programme Britain’s Hardest Grafter.

Imagine this: a TV programme that pitches low-paid workers and unemployed people against each other on national television for a £15,500 cash prize. If it sounds like a dystopian reality, or a spin-off from The Hunger Games, you might be surprised to hear that it is BBC 2’s new five-part reality series, Britain’s Hardest Grafter.

Heralded by its creators as a  “serious social experiment” that will investigate just how hard people work in the low wage economy; its detractors see it as just another example of a now well-established media trope termed “poverty porn”.

The reactions have been divisive and culminated with an online petition objecting to the “degrading and exploitative game show” gathering 26,000 signatures. The reactions have also been reminiscent of another hit British TV show: Channel 4’s Benefits Street.

The popular series, now in its second series filmed on a British street where a reported 90% of residents claim benefits, was also intended to “inform” public debate. Its legacy, however, has been far more controversial.  

Granted, more television programmes need to explore the realities of low-paid work and unemployment. But there is a casual blindness in programmes like Benefits Street to the imbalance of power that is established from the outset.


Benefits Street series one Dee


There is a willing ignorance to the undeniable fact that the people living on screen lose any control over the way they are portrayed as soon as the makers of the programme enter the edit suite. The final product is sensationalism: juicy soundbites designed to circumvent any real debate and keep the viewing figures up.

Long gone seem to be the days when British broadcasters commissioned the type of reflective and contextualised filmmaking that Granada’s (and then ITV Studios’) Up Series, for example, was famous for.

Touted as a social experiment in its time, it followed the lives of 14 British children from 1964 when they were seven years old, with a follow-up episode every seven years. This type of longer term content achieved a goal that programmers today could only dream of: it dealt with challenging, complex issues with a strong measure of responsibility, empathy and understanding that nevertheless made for great television.

From the Up Series to Britain’s Hardest Grafter, the stories don’t change much – people making lives for themselves in a range of different conditions, dealing with the social issues of the time. But the way we tell them really has changed, and our ability as storytellers to voice these concerns has been lost somewhere along the way.

Programmes that make up the current trend in factual entertainment promote a “worst is best” attitude inherited from the likes of Big Brother. Disguised as documentaries, they pretend to analyse austerity when actually they degrade it and even monetise it. The end result might be high drama, but the stories are sensational and won’t sustain and entertain us for very long. 


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