It’s the great white hope of digital television – cheap to make, quick turn-arounds and big audiences. Structured reality (or constructed reality, depending on how cynical you are) is one of the biggest success stories of the past two years in UK television – led by the mother of all partially fictionalised documentaries, the original, the best, The Only Way Is Essex.
But as digital channels turn to production companies to emulate the success of TOWIE’s million plus viewers an episode, could the structure of the reality itself eventually prove an Achilles heel for the format?
The news that Maria Fowler and Harry Derbidge are leaving TOWIE may not on its own sound catastrophic for producers – after all, they are merely small cogs in a much larger reality machine. However, when added to the departure of vajazzle pioneer Amy Childs last autumn, original star and linchpin to storylines Mark Wright this winter and now Kirk Norcross to take part in Celebrity Big Brother, a slightly more worrying pattern has begun to emerge.
It’s no secret that the cast receive meagre remuneration for their performances in TOWIE – therefore it’s equally unsurprising that the stars’ ultimate goal is to find a lucrative exit strategy as soon as possible. But is this haemorrhaging of “talent” a sustainable model for a popular TV series?
There’s been talk of TOWIE becoming a once weekly soap, but surely this would compound the problem even further. Imagine Corrie with three cast members a month leaving and unknown newbies replacing them. It would not only be disorienting, it would remove the one thing that any soap/docu-soap/reality-soap has at its foundation – continuity.
As producers may begin to find out the hard way with TOWIE, beyond the initial novelty of fake tan, fast cars and elaborately decorated genitalia, people watch the show for the same reason viewers enjoy any form of drama, partially fictionalised or otherwise – for characters and relationships. Without the familiarity, without the friendships and without the established stars, TOWIE becomes nothing more than another terrible fly-on-the-wall documentary about random idiots the likes of which we’ve seen across the digital EPG for decades.
So what can be done to save TOWIE?
Well, producers could start paying the stars more than £50 a day in an attempt to keep them on the show, away from get-rich-quick schemes over on Channel 5, and lock them into long-term contracts… But that’s not the nature of the game. As soon as they do this, the little reality that’s left (and the financial savings that come with it) is lost, the “people” become “characters” and the programme descends into an expensive version of Hollyoaks Nights filled with overpaid tabloid-wooing prima donnas.
Structured reality has to at least keep some grip on reality for it to remain in any sense charming and relevant to its audience. Yes, viewers want to laugh at the outrageous antics of its stars but in order for the programme to work, the characters have to remain believable and accessible. But as the talent becomes famous, inevitably the people want to move from the Z-list to the D-list. The result: an impossible juggling act for producers.
And so as a fourth series of The Only Way Is Essex looms – sure to be peppered with a liberal helping of new young Brentwood folk – it remains to be seen whether viewers will accept further casualties from TOWIE to the ever-present threats of fame and money in the coming months.
Whether this is the beginning of the end for TOWIE or merely the start of another glorious chapter, for now, one thing remains sure – there’s still only one way to go for truly popular British structured reality… Essex.