The Osbournes': Genre, Reality TV, and the Domestication of Rock 'n Roll

By Rick Pieto and Kelly Otter

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The latest trend of television programming is reality TV, a genre that finds its most valuable content in the unabashed display of individuals willing to be put on display as they part with their privacy, dignity, and composure. The genre is clear, yet the formula varies so as to keep it fresh and increasingly bizarre to maintain its audience. Young women compete for a husband on camera by attempting to win the affection of a bachelor in six weeks; individuals compete for money by conquering their fears and consume live insects or allow themselves to be submerged under water for as long as possible; and couples test the strength of their relationships by subjecting themselves to the temptation of desirable strangers. Love, fear, and conflict provide the substance of a good story, and television producers have found a context in which drama is manufactured before a camera crew. But given the absence of a constructed context and specific roles to play, how do we define The Osbournes? How should we generically define this program about an aging heavy metal rock star and his "dysfunctional family?"

One way to begin to place The Osbournes within an appropriate genre is to look at MTV's presentation of the show. MTV sells The Osbournes as a reality TV sitcom and indeed its narrative structure is loosely similar to the sitcom formula, with real-life segments edited and sequenced to be reminiscent of a scripted program. More specifically, the show is framed within the genre of 1950's sitcoms. The opening credits have a self-consciously retro look to them. The theme song replays a lounge music aesthetic both in its melody and in the voice of the male singer. The title of the show, The Osbournes, connotes early sitcom family names such as the Cramdens, The Cleavers and, of course, The Nelsons. Indeed a visit to The Osbournes' website explicitly draws this connection between the archetypal '50s father Ozzy Nelson and MTV's incarnation Ozzy Osbourne. The Osbournes is obviously too dark and "dysfunctional" to fall within the boundaries of '50s sitcoms, however the ironic '50s signifiers in the show's opening credits contradict the typically straightforward use of generic signals, especially as they are used in movie and television credits. Traditionally, with television and films, genre is clearly signaled for and marketed to the target audience. The correct packaging of movies and television programs according to genre is meticulously researched so as to appeal to the appropriate audience. The tongue-in-cheek opening credits of The Osbournes do something more than signal an audience or define a genre: they suggest to the audience a possible intertextual reading of the show. The opening credits do not say to the audience "This is a fifties style sitcom," rather they say, "This is not a fifties style sitcom but you can read it as though it were one." By ignoring the typical conventions of generic signaling, MTV invites the audience to perform an intertextual reading, juxtaposing the heavy metal rock star dad within markers of a genre in which the signifiers of "dad" connote Ward Cleaver as opposed to Ozzy, creating an appropriate amount of added-value irony.

The Osbournes seem to be more closely aligned intertextually to another more recent subgenre of sitcoms, the anti-fifties sitcoms such as Roseanne and Married with Children. The Osbournes share with these sitcoms a cynical and dysfunctional view of modern family life; a self-conscious denial of the optimism and mutual appreciation associated with fifties sitcoms. However, what distinguishes The Osbournes from Roseanne and Married with Children is not so much the difference between fiction and non-fiction (reality TV), but the way highly visible markers of class operate within each show. Whereas these sitcoms present membership in the working class as an insurmountable given (particularly Roseanne's final season with the revelation that the Conners's lottery win was a fantasy), The Osbournes proves that even a working-class kid from Britain (whose "class" was tantamount to poverty) can realize the American dream of upward mobility and wealth, especially when paired with an ambitious upper middle-class wife/manager. There is a reversal here that reveals problems with the basic generic distinctions of fact and fiction: the fictional narratives of Roseanne and Married with Children present a more "realistic" portrayal of the experience of working class families and the minimal probability that could attain financial success at the level of the the Osbournes. The Osbournes, on the other hand, through their reality-based show, exemplify the American ideology of upward mobility. The reality of the Osbournes' affluence is an ideological fiction for most working-class Americans.

This brings us to a more pertinent genre for classifying The Osbournes: reality TV. As a popular term, reality TV denotes a variety of shows from Cops to Survivor, from the The Bachelor to The Osbournes. The term reality TV implies the documentation of the "reality" of an event or "referent" that somehow, in some way, exists independently of the recording machines that capture the event. Not only does MTV bend the conventions of the fictional genre with its ironic use of opening credits, but it also bends the codes, conventions, and ethics of documentary filmmaking so as to capture a segment of the youth market. This practice efficiently produces an ironic brand of media for a presumed media-savvy, (read: young) audience. The footage of police pullovers that are recorded by dashboard-mounted cameras for the reality show Cops, however problematic, more accurately fit the description of reality TV. Programs such as Survivor, The Bachelor, The Real World, and even The Osbournes do not document or observe an independent reality through a camera, as documentary films purport to do; they record the behaviors and activities appropriate to self-consciously constructed situations. As Erica Goode stated in a New York Times article, shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Bachelor are direct descendants of the social psychology experiments of the sixties and seventies. The film version of Stanley Milgram's infamous study Obedience to Authority and Philip Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford study provide the generic roots of reality TV. What these texts have in common, from Milgram's study to Big Brother, is the construction of an all-encompassing social situation with compelling rules and rigidly defined roles that influence, in often highly predictable ways, the social actions of the people who are in the situations. What reality TV presents is not the unobtrusive observations of an event that would have existed independently of the camera, but a highly controlled situation that produces a social drama constructed specifically for the camera (or experimenter).

What is key here is that the type of manipulation and control which television shows like Survivor, Big Brother, or The Bachelor perform regularly with impunity would never be allowed in any kind of legitimate social science experiment, at least not without rigorous and strict oversight by a Human Subjects Review board.

As the institutional representation of the formalized code of the rights of participants in experiments or research, it is the principles of Human Subjects Review that suggest the deeper problems of the reality TV genre. Two of the fundamental principles of subjects' rights are the right to confidentiality and the right of voluntary participation. The first right does not apply to the landscape of reality TV; indeed the participants of Big Brother or Survivor, we assume, gladly waive the right of confidentiality for their 15 minutes of fame. However, the right to voluntarily participate and to be free from coercion, carries with it some interesting corollaries that directly affect the manipulation and control that goes into the production of reality TV. Included in the notion of voluntary participation is the right of participants to review any and all materials that are derived from their participation (e.g. audio or video recording) and even to have them destroyed if they wish. It is the goal of this rule to shelter the participant from any embarrassment or discomfort (just think of Milgram's "teachers" and their extreme unease as they believed they administered electrical shocks to the "learners"). This right of participants, which is a given in legitimate social science research, would completely transform the nature of production of reality TV. To give the participants or contestants of a reality TV show the right and power to destroy any part of the record would shift the power from the producers of the show to the participants. We see within this set of issues the coercion that goes into the making of reality TV; the contestants have no rights to the final text, which they have had a real hand in producing. The participants have only two choices; they can submit to the wishes of the producers or walk off the show. This lack of control on the part of the participants of reality TV mirrors the more subtle lack of choice of television viewers. Just as reality TV show participants have no say in the day-to-day production of the shows they take part in, so television viewers have no control over what appears on their television screens. Viewers, like reality TV participants, have only one limited choice of any consequence; submit to the wishes of the broadcasters or turn off the show.

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