Hesmondhalgh and Baker on what it’s like to work on a UK reality/talent TV show

For a long time BBC and ITV ‘in-house’ departments monopolized the
entertainment genre on British television. But one of the great transformations
of European television since the 1980s has been the rise of independent
production companies and, in the talent show genre no less than
in others such as drama and documentary, indies have become increasingly
important.6 In parallel, a considerable commissioning apparatus has
developed in British television, one which often involves a tug-of-war

From a couple of my favourite researchers, the UK’s David Hesmondhalgh and Griffith Uni’s Sarah Baker, comes a study examining the theory around, and the conditions of, the creative industries labour market.

The shape and nature of work in the creative, cultural and media industries has become a topic of quite considerable interest  in recent times, driven in part by the kind of industry boosterism championed by the UK’s Department of Media, Culture and Sport, but also by a realisation, spurred by certain researchers like NYU’s Andrew Ross, that the “no-collar” workplace of the cultural and media sectors may just describe the shape of the broader workplace of the future.

This paper, “Creative Work and Emotional Labour in the Television Industry”, published in 2008 by Theory, Culture & Society [Vol. 25(7–8): 97–118], takes a hard look at the conditions of labour in the reality TV industry. There are literally dozens of priceless research nuggets, like the quote at he end of this paragraph:

For a long time BBC and ITV ‘in-house’ departments monopolized the entertainment genre on British television. But one of the great transformations of European television since the 1980s has been the rise of independent production companies and, in the talent show genre no less than in others such as drama and documentary, indies have become increasingly important. In parallel, a considerable commissioning apparatus has developed in British television, one which often involves a tug-of-war relationship between production teams and commissioning editors over who has creative control in the production process (see also Born, 2004). Indies rely on commissioners for the survival of their businesses. Like many people in dependent relationships, indie executives express ambivalence about the object of their dependence. They express strong feelings of admiration and respect for particular editors, and deep mistrust of commissioners in general. One executive producer from another TV indie (not IPC TV), for example, told us that commissioning editors ‘are by and large more interested in power, deep down, than they are interested in programmes’ (interview, 29 November 2006).

And what did Baker and Hesmondhalgh find? That making a reality/talent TV show on short deadlines is highly stressful, especially in an emotional sense. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they find that making the specific sorts of symbols involved in reality TV (unearthing talent, conferring fame, making and breaking stars, changing contestants lives, etc) is emotionally draining, technically demanding and potentially intellectually alienating:

TV talent shows offer stardom, even if this is only three minutes of fame. But the power of star-making brings with it particular responsibilities and pressures for the production team. In particular, it involves a form of emotional labour, defined in Arlie Hochschild’s seminal discussion as requiring the worker ‘to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others’ (Hochschild, 1983: 7). Laura Grindstaff (2002) has applied this concept to the labour of workers on confessional talk shows in their efforts to elicit appropriate emotional responses from ordinary guests (or ‘Joe Average’, in the words of one talk show producer) which will provide the show’s all-important money shot (a term she borrows from the importance in pornography of the filmed male climax) – the display of strong emotion, such as weeping or anger, on screen.

(Interestingly, you can see a literal example of this ambiguous juxtapostion in a YouTube video about porn actress Sasha Grey’s highly-tweaked appearance on Tyra Banks’ chat show in the US.  But I digress.)

To continue, the authors find that while “there is a great deal of camaraderie and fun involved in working together on a television show – pub lunches, shared jokes, team drinks after work, dancing in Soho bars, discussing the sexual merits of good-looking contributors” it is none-the-less “a highly competitive and precarious industry, and with tight production schedules producing high levels of stress and anxiety, it was very difficult to maintain good working relations. One of the researchers on Show Us Your Talent told us that there comes a point in every production ‘where everyone hates each other’ (field notes, 19 March 2007).”

The authors conclude that:

“One of the reasons that a programme like Show Us Your Talent is interesting is that it involves the power to change people’s lives – choices are made about who gets to appear on TV and who doesn’t. This is a particularly strong example of the symbolic power accorded to media producers in modern societies (see also Couldry, 2000, for a compatible analytical framework). We went on to discuss how this symbolic power is unevenly distributed, residing mainly in the commissioning organization (here, the BBC) and the independent production company (IPC TV) – creating tensions between the two. We then showed how these issues were manifested in the lives of junior workers further down the production hierarchy, exacerbated by demands to produce a show with prime-time aspirations on a daytime budget. Such pressures add to the already considerable responsibilities involved in producing goods which are then released to such a wide public – transmitted to nearly 2 million people in the case of the second series. This means that junior workers have to deal with people who – even in a relatively low-budget, low-audience talent show such as Show Us Your Talent – have a huge amount at stake in appearing on, and succeeding on, such shows. The responsibility of star-making gets passed on to workers down the chain. The working relations produced were felt particularly keenly by workers who, if they were to stay in the UK television industry, needed to remain on good terms with their colleagues. In all this, we found Hochschild’s concept of ‘emotional labour’ more compelling and useful than the autonomist concepts of ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘affective labour’.”

This is a fascinating and important paper.


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