I couldn’t help but laugh.
“James’ choux pastry isn’t rising – it’s a real disaster” the commentator said in tones as if poor James’ house had just fallen down. I peered over my wife’s shoulder to see the unfolding catastrophe: anxious looking cooks whisked, poured and prayed (whilst gazing into ovens). An elderly woman wandered around critiquing contestants’ crème patisseries. “Who’s she?” I asked. “She… is the world expert in cooking.” Oh, yes – I should have recognised her. “What about the guy with the beard?” She was less certain this time, “I think he’s got something to do with baking.” I did however recognise the third presenter, British comedienne Sue Perkins. She clearly didn’t know much about cakes (apart from how to eat them). Even without her bouncy persona, this bizarre talent show was comical and somewhat ridiculous – everyday people in a sweaty angst for the sake of a chiffon cake.
Reality TV has invaded mainstream culture. How did this cheap daytime creation become such a phenomenon for TV viewers everywhere? Let’s discover the magic recipe for this newest middle-class guilty pleasure. Cue the tense music… will the cupcakes rise in time..?
Lifestyle TV – from daytime to primetime
Much has been written about television viewing habits. ‘Lifestyle Television’, as we now know it, is a relatively new creation. It probably started sometime in the 1990s being birthed from tabloid daytime talk shows (The Jerry Springer Show, et al). Then came the ‘make-over’ shows – in the UK we had House Invaders, Changing Rooms and Would Love to Meet. They all follow a strangely similar familiar theme. And like fast-food in a famine, we’re mad for it.
How to make a successful lifestyle TV show
Television of the past had glamorous stars and suit-wearing hosts. Lifestyle shows are altogether different. Each show makes a deliberate effort to ‘ordinary–ise’ the situation – making the participants appear normal as possible. Reams of footage are dedicated to individual contenstant. We hear about their background, see them socialising with friends and family and find out what their underwear looks like (sometimes). They aren’t acting. In fact, they are a person just like you. Most importantly, the fewer the qualifications they have, the more successful the programme with be. If it were a political party, the lifestyle show would be socialist.
Yet an average Joe hero not enough, for we must also appeal to our vanity.
Lifestyle TV feeds into, and contributes to, our preoccupation with style, success, homes and possessions. As these shows have evolved from trashy daytime to upmarket primetime, their prizes have transformed to suit its audience.
A ‘sophisticated’, broadsheet-reading urbanite who watches BBC in an evening is not interested in a made-over house. They probably already have one. Rather, today’s most primetime slots offer something money can’t buy. A successful lifestyle show must titillate us with something unobtainable – a job with Jamie Oliver, an Apprenticeship with Alan Sugar or a Sony record deal.
But there is one final ingredient needed to make this mixture rise.
The anxious middle-classes (yes, that includes me) savour only one thing better than having things. And that’s life improvement. Winners aren’t necessarily those who are the most naturally talented, good-looking or able – they are the ones who are transformed the most. As the weeks pass, and expert judges whittle the contestants down, we find out more about how the lucky punters are growing as individuals. The script is normally “I’m learning so much” or “This process has completely changed me”. These participants aren’t just fighting for a prize; they’re fighting to become a better singer, dancer, artist, cooker, baker – and person.
Your cupcake madam?
It is perhaps no wonder then that the winner of The Great British Bake Off featured in today’s broadsheet newspapers. Today’s top TV entertainment manages to combine suspenseful competition (game show), person-watching (reality TV) and personal transformation (lifestyle).
It’s a tasty blend.
I wasn’t enticed by the hotwater crust pastry towers or jam-filled doughnuts. I found it banal. It would therefore be appropriate for me to conclude with a few disparaging remarks about the ‘dumbing down’ of TV. The problem is, is that I’m a sucker for these shows just as much as you are.
You can keep your X-factor and Pop idol, my guilty pleasure is a certain (very low budget) Channel 4 cooking competition. I would tell you, but I’m too ashamed to admit it.
Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to discuss in the comments below…Follow @realdoctorstu
Redden, G (2008). Making over the Talent Show In Exposing Lifestyle Television: The Big Reveal. Ashgate, 129-144
Palmer, G (2008). Class and transformation in lifestyle television In Exposing Lifestyle Television: The Big Reveal. Ashgate, 173-190