January 20, 2007
The Power of Reality Television to Inspire Political Debate in the Blogosphere, Commented on by...A Blogger from The Apprentice

Now here's a surreal moment that could only be provided to us by reality television, and one that reeks of the type of interconnectivity that happens in a convergence culture. Allegations of racism directed toward Shilpa Shetty, an Indian actress appearing on Celebrity Big Brother UK have led to a horde of complaints throughout the blogosphere, including a variety of rumors about language directed toward Shetty during the taping of the reality show. Yet, what fascinates me most is that one of the bloggers who has written a commentary on this incident is brand-manager-turned-reality-television star Surya Yalamanchili of The Apprentice fame.

Yalamanchili, who I've gotten to know through some similar interests in trying to navigate the current media environment, launched his blog not long ago and has already made some astute media-related observations in the short time his blog has been active. But he pointed this post in particular out to me, which piqued my interest because of the mere idea of a reality star commenting on the treatment of another reality star in the blogosphere, while both are still stars on their respective programs. Add to that the fact that both are ethnically South Asian stars appearing on "Western" reality shows and the story gets even more confusing.

These layers of "reality" add an awfully fascinating dimension to their respective shows. The fact that these people, who are both television personas and simultaneously "real," make their public blogs a really interesting source, especially when a character from one reality show becomes a commentator for another.

However, the blogosphere has played a pivotal role in the coverage of Shilpa Shetty's treatment on Celebrity Big Brother UK in general. For a complete rundown, Shetty's Wikipedia page gives an overall account as to the controversy so far, with the show still ongoing and Shetty remaining in the house. However, the program brings to the surface racial tensions that are now escalating to significant commercial and political ramifications, including reactions in both Parliament and with a sponsor pulling from the show.

There's a variety of angles to examine this situation by: the question about all publicity being good publicity aside, the blogosphere's reaction is pivotal here. And so is the main post of Surya's post, which is how reality television can amplify the tensions of our society and bring these to the forefront in a way that many other programs cannot. Because these are "real" people, albeit in contrived situations, these shows can spur very lively moral debates from their viewers, as C3 Director Henry Jenkins has written about so many times. Last summer, writing about Big Brother, Jenkins said:

Reality television is an ideal form for a networked culture. As more and more of us move on line, we find ourselves engaged in conversations with people who know very few if any of the same folks in common. Yet, there remains a core human desire to gossip. Sociologists tell us that gossip serves a basic human need for the sharing of secrets and the making of evaluations. Who gets gossiped about is less important than the bonds that get formed between those who are sharing gossip with each other. Reality television is designed to produce moral conflicts and ethical dramas involving real people who become shared reference points for gossip amongst people nationwide.

Certainly, this situation has become one of those cases, in which moral questions that are at the fabric of a society are pushed to the forefront about fan debates surrounding what's happening on a reality television show. As Jenkins says, these shows produce in the fan communities major "moral conflicts and ethical dramas" that have very real consequences.

Surya writes:

Reality TV is as contrived and unnatural a setting as one could imagine, yet it can reveal some of the most basic insights and truths of life. Moments of everyday life, which ordinarily don't draw attention from society at large, are magnified to massive proportions and bring with them scrutiny, focus, and debate. And therein lies its value.

And I think the Shetty incident, or what I've learned from it based on Surya's insight and my own digging a little further, is one of these cases that demonstrates both the power of the blogosphere to highlight a problem and the power of reality television to create a safe haven to talk about some of the ills of our society. After all, the debate is related to a television show, and this actress brought it on herself for appearing, right? Yet, as Surya indicates, the fallout of bringing this debate to the forefront is that it could help all those people who are the victims of racial abuse and who aren't celebrities choosing to be on the cast of a reality show.

Surya concludes:

There are benefits that can come out of the focus on Ms. Shetty's mistreatment. This incident increases public discussion, and the consciousness for such matters, and people are more likely to think twice about saying a potentially hurtful statement. [ . . . ] It's almost consensus that reality TV often offers up the worst of society. And it is terrible and vile. But in this cesspool of horror, there can beauty. And as bizarre as it is--this incident is it.

I think his overall sentiment is right, in that (for me, anyway) the power of reality television show is much more in the fan community surrounding it rather than the artistic merit of the original text itself.

But, it's awfully bizarre to read such insight coming from "The Hair" of this season's Apprentice and to get commentary on finding the beauty of reality television from one of the cast members of The Donald's show. Just goes to show you how bizarre the media environment can become in a world of convergence...