Reality TV’s cultural impact explored in new BBC Radio 4 podcast

A new BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds 10-part documentary podcast is to explore the cultural impact of reality TV.

Unreal: A Critical History Of Reality TV is written and hosted by journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale.

Using interviews with the creators, producers and stars of some of the most iconic reality shows of the last two decades, and leading cultural critics of today, the series explores how reality TV has shaped entertainment, fashion, beauty, celebrity and even politics, as well as some of the ethical questions raised by it.

Pandora and Sirin have spoken to over 60 voices from in front of and behind the camera, including original Big Brother contestants Nick Bateman and Brian Dowling, and its creative director Philip Edgar Jones; Pop Idol co-creator Simon Jones and X Factor star Janet Devlin; Made In Chelsea’s Spencer Matthews and Georgia Toffolo; Made In Chelsea co-creator and The Only Way Is Essex producer, Sarah Dillistone; executive producer of Keeping Up With The Kardashians for all 20 seasons Farnaz Farjam; Real Housewives star Taylor Armstrong and its creator Scott Dunlop; Selling Sunset star Mary Fitzgerald and its creator Adam DiVello; the notorious Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag from The Hills; the creators of makeover shows The Swan and What Not To Wear; Love Island contestants Dr Alex George, Megan Barton-Hanson, and Rachel Finni, and executive producer Richard Cowles – and many more.

Each episode will feature a specific show or reality genre: from Britain’s first ‘official’ reality show Big Brother, that became a global phenomenon, and the gold-rush of talent shows in the early noughties with Pop Idol and The X Factor; to how docusoaps The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea became national treasures, and why Love Island became mired in tragedy and controversy, asking: is this the end for reality TV?

Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale say: “We’ve been fans of reality TV since we first watched Big Brother as fascinated pre-teens, and we’ve grown up loving the genre, defending it when people are snobby about it, or dismiss its importance in our wider culture. But we’ve also been troubled, at times: by the exploitation of contributors, the sometimes inadequate aftercare and the impact on young viewers at home.

“Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV is our attempt to bring an analytical eye to a genre that influences almost every walk of life: celebrity, music, fashion, beauty, dating and even politics. Over the last six months, we’ve interviewed more than 60 show creators, producers and iconic reality personalities, and re-watched hundreds (and hundreds) of hours of reality TV. It’s been a pleasure to create this 10-part audio documentary for BBC Sounds and understand how the genre needs to evolve and grow, to move with modern and more socially conscious audiences – while still bringing us the compelling TV we crave. We hope you enjoy it.”

Rhian Roberts, Commissioner, Podcasts & Digital at BBC Radio 4, 3 and 4 Extra, says: “Many of us have spent a fair bit of time bewitched by this TV phenomenon. In the Unreal podcast BBC Radio 4 consider how it’s influenced so many different parts of the media landscape and beyond. The series unearths stories straight from those at the heart of the genre, casting a sometimes affectionate but also critical eye on many of the most famous programmes of our time.”

Unreal is available as a box set on BBC Sounds from 17 May.

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