Over the past few weeks, media outlets in India have focused considerable attention on the pressures that reality show contestants face. What began as an examination of the case of Shinjini Sen Gupta, a contestant who is now under treatment for severe depression that is being linked to the harsh comments she received from the show’s judges, has now drawn in a range of opinions and even a call from Renuka Chaudhury, Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare, to establish norms and regulations for reality TV programming (link).
In the process, comparisons are being made to other television cultures such as the U.S. and the U.K., and the very idea of “participation” in a reality show is being re-framed as “labor.” While I don’t think this move is necessary, there is no doubt that the issues are important enough to ask parents and industry professionals to take a step back and consider how children are (or not) dealing with a range of physical and emotional pressures. But in this post, I want to turn our attention to another, largely neglected site of “labor” in the world of reality TV: the studio audience.
In Mumbai, I had an opportunity to spend some time on the sets of an immensely popular reality TV program (a singing talent show). I was able to attend rehearsals one afternoon and return the next day when two episodes were shot (in a studio in Film City). Day one in particular was a wonderful learning experience for me since I was able to walk around and observe every step of the process: music arrangement with the band, song and stage rehearsal, choreography, camera and lighting rehearsal, the “reality bits” in which contestants talk about their experiences and each other, and stage design. The one aspect that took me by surprise, however, was the management of the studio audience.
As with other several other reality shows, this one also employs an audience coordinator whose job is to ensure there is a lively and energetic studio audience. For any given episode, the studio audience includes a number of friends and relatives of the contestants (say 30-40 people, seated to the right of the contestants) and about 100 other high-school/college-age boys and girls who occupy the stands on either side of the stage. On the day of the shoot, these audience members begin lining up outside the studio nearly two hours in advance and are asked to enter the studio 30-40 minutes before the contestants and judges take their seats.
And for the next 20 minutes or so, the director of the show, with the help of the audience coordinator, asks these audience members to perform for the camera: clap for 2 minutes; clap, hoot and whistle for 2 minutes; stand up and cheer for 2 minutes; dance to three different songs, and so on. They do all this during the shoot as well. For a day’s labor, they get lunch and are paid 200-300 rupees (varies from one who to another). It was, quite frankly, not that easy to begin thinking about the studio audience as wage labor.
I was also surprised to observe the manner in which these audience members were being treated by the audience coordinator and other production staff. I learned from the cameraman sitting next to me that these audience members were regulars at Film City – these are kids who skip school/college and often hang out at Film City to look for these day-long gigs. And it was apparent that the audience coordinator had come to know some of them – every 5 minutes or so, he would yell and swear – “you #$*&er in the black cap, I know you – stop talking/remain standing/I won’t let you back in here/one tight slap is what you need” – and so on. The audience members, in turn, seemed to know how far they could push the audience coordinator and would pipe down at the right moments and do exactly as they were told. In between all this, the director would chime in every now and then to thank and commend the audience members on how well they were doing and how central they were to the show’s success.
The day I attended, there were 5 contestants remaining and that meant each episode took about 3-3.5 hours to shoot. With the exception of an hour-long lunch break, these audience members were on their feet, performing the role of enthusiastic fans. And because they wouldn’t get paid until the end of the day, it didn’t make sense for anyone to leave after lunch. Besides, I’m sure they know that they could be replaced rather easily.
To be clear, these audience members are not your typical media consumers/fans who might go on a tour of a film/TV set and witness the process of media production. At the same time, I did notice that during the shoot, these audience members were participating very enthusiastically without much prodding from the audience coordinator. It was evident that they were regulars on the set (I don’t know how many watch the show when it airs) and were rooting for their favorite contestant. Would it be fair, then, to suggest that these youth are also fans of the show? Perhaps not, considering that they serve as audiences on many different television shows and there is no reason to assume any loyal fandom here. Are they, then, fans of television in general who simply enjoy being a part of the production process (with some pocket money thrown in)?