Labor and Reality TV

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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)?

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5 Responses to “Labor and Reality TV”

  1. swati Says:

    A,

    Part of my job as Associate Producer was interacting with two key people – the ‘model’ and junior artiste coordinators. The ‘model’ coordinators were those who managed the better looking, ‘posh’ college going crowd and the junior artist person was ofcourse for those unionized, card carrying members who were not ‘posh’ and were older and did not dress ‘posh.’ The ‘models’ were paid significantly higher than the junior artistes and they were mostly used in bar, college or coffee day-type scenes. Since I was one of their pointpersons – to them it looked like I was a person of some power (stop laughing). Anyways, I did have many conversations with them and most of these models/kids were there just for the cash. Its not just “pocket money.” It was a job for many of them, going to 3-4 schedules in a day. If you were really lucky an Assistant Director may spot you and call you back or even give you a line to speak (more money). I have seen these kids look bored out of their skulls for the most part but when they were required to act/dance/run/scream they did so like they meant it. So, I would agree with you that they might not be fans of particular actors/singers. And, from my experience, I think they might not be fans of the production process either; as much as they like the access to the powers that be and the cash that being there brings.

    The coordinators that I was in contact with were a couple who were like parent-figures to these kids. The A.Ds were the ones who would do the maa-behen gaalis – both to the coordinators and the kids if someone effs up. There were always people sleeping around or romances and people getting kicked out of the set for not following hierarchies. It is a small society onto itself, no?

    Write more about your time there.

    -s

  2. aswinp Says:

    Swatib – *you* need to blog about your time in the big league ;) Anyhow, your note about the “posh” kids and the SEC-B kids holds here as well. The ones seated were treated very differently compared to the ones standing and sweating it out. And yeah, I also agree that they aren’t fans of the production process but I do think they’re fans of “television” in general – the star judges, the anchor of the show, and so on. For some odd reason, I didn’t expect to see this in the TV world…maybe b’cos I was there as a fan, looking around wide-eyed!

  3. Jonathan Gray Says:

    Great stuff, Aswin. There’s probably an element of Comedy Club Disease going on too (I refer to the oddity that really bad jokes get laughs in comedy clubs, and mediocre humor gets howls, often just because people come ready and wanting to laugh), so that some audiences might go more for the expected behavior than for whatever’s actually attached to it in terms of would-be fan object? Or a middling combination? I also think of Stanley Milgram: if he could make people “torture” others (scare quotes, btw, not to suggest I’m taking a Bush-ian relaxed nature to what “torture” really is, but because, of course, they didn’t really torture anyone in these experiments), surely studio audiences could easily be made to go wild and crazy on cue

    anyways, thanks for this

  4. Atul Says:

    Wonderful account, Aswinp. This post will open the eyes of lots and lots of couch potatoes who are hooked into these programmes. I am not among them, thankfully.

    So in effect, the audience in these shows are like extras in movies. How very demeaning, not only to them, but to the millions of people watching the shows who are being taken for a ride.

  5. sorab Says:

    it would be really interesting to see what happens when the daily live audience is made to see the same show on a tv. i’ve a feeling they will be quite apathetic to it. in other words a pretty reliable way to make a show collapse would be shoot its shooting and show it on the tv..
    -sorab
    DoctorFlix

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