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TV that goes too far? University expert on why we love shows full of conflict

Confrontation is the name of the game when it comes to 21st Century television, according to one University of Sunderland professor.

From The Jeremy Kyle Show to Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares; from The Apprentice USA to Dragons’ Den, all these programmes possess the ‘in-your-face’ factor designed to provoke and entertain.

But is this good for us as an audience? Why do we take pleasure in watching them? And is it time for some official regulation?

Angela Smith, Professor of Language and Culture at the University, discusses the issue in her book Belligerent Broadcasting, which is now available in paperback edition from publishers Routledge.

She said: “Confrontation on TV is a safe space where the audience member can join in, taking part in something they would not normally be involved in.

“During our day-to-day lives we generally avoid argument and confrontation, we negotiate, so a programme like Jeremy Kyle allows us to escape that normality of civil society and enjoy things like lie detector results.

“There is confrontation in all aspects of television but a lot of it appears to be done for entertainment purposes when it comes to reality TV.

“There is a formula with a show like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares which sees Gordon Ramsay confront people, shouting at them and winding them up, then, as the programme progresses, the viewer is supposed to learn that he has been doing it for their own good.”

But, with so many similar shows now being broadcast, how can we account for the fact that TV seems to have become a sphere of anger, humiliation, anger, dispute and upset?

And to what extent does belligerence in broadcasting reflect broader social and cultural developments?

Professor Smith added: “In order to understand what is happening today, we have to look back to the past.

“There used to be a greater respect during TV interviews. There would be a certain deference to those who were more high-ranking, or perhaps deemed more intelligent. This started to get chipped away in the 1960s with the rise of a less deferential culture.

“Suddenly political interviewing started to change, it became more challenging, more direct.

“Then, with the more recent rise of right wing populism, this has spread out to other communities where people are become more confrontational in a way they never have before. This is perhaps most currently evident with Brexit and the way it is being debated.

“The question to ask ourselves is this – is belligerent forms of TV now spilling out into the community? And do regulators like Ofcom have a responsibility to step in and regulate?”

But perhaps the shift is already happening, according to Professor Smith.

“Look at a programme like Top Gear,” she adds. “A few seasons ago that was very confrontational but today, while the banter is still there, the animosity appears to have fallen by the wayside.

“Likewise, we see the rise in popularity of shows like Call the Midwife which are almost an antidote to those ‘in-your-face’ reality programmes.”

Belligerent Broadcasting by Angela Smith and Michael Higgins is now available in paperback from publishers Routledge. 

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