::The Osbournes': Genre, Reality TV, and the Domestication of Rock 'n Roll
By Rick Pieto and Kelly Otter

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What seems to give reality TV its feeling of reality, its "reality effect," is the consolidation within the reality TV text of two powerful social discourses: surveillance and therapy. We can easily see a version of Foucault's panopticon at work in this genre. For example, the total surveillance imposed on the Osbourne family, with 50 cameras following them continually, is an attempt to capture and display to the viewing audience the intimate elements in the lives of the Osbournes, much in the same way the observation tower of the panopticon aims to place the prisoners under constant inspection (or at least make them feel that way). However, the surveillance of reality shows differs from Bentham's and Foucualt's formulation in a fundamental way: Bentham's panopticon disciplines the prisoner by inhibiting and thus curtailing behavior, but reality TV's panopitcon sanctions (and disciplines) the participant to exhibit all types of behavior. Bentham's panopticon implants in the incarcerated a controlling gaze; a gaze once internalized within the incarcerated produces a self-disciplining, self-regulating subject. This discipline works through the interaction of the panoptic architecture and the subject's visible body to limit and reduce any unwanted behavior. Reality television works differently, as it imposes on the participants a visual regime that requires the exhibition of all kinds of behavior. For reality TV, behavior of all sorts must be rooted out, not for the sake of limiting it, but for the sake of multiplying it, for expanding it and permitting it to play itself out. This can be seen in The Osbournes as we witness the family dealing with not only small domestic problems but with the major crises of alcoholism, drug use, and cancer. We have a kind of discipline (because the participants of reality TV are pressured to deliver the goods) through the disinhibition and exhibition of what we believe is private behavior for television cameras. This surveillance does not stop at presenting the participants' actions, but must penetrate to the interior of the participant and expose for the spectacle his and her inner thoughts and emotions. This is the point at which mass media surveillance easily slides into the therapeutic realm.

Scholars such as T. J. Jackson Lears and Mimi White have pointed to the prevalence of the therapeutic ethos in modern culture, from advertising to talk shows. Reality TV has adopted the techniques of therapy, the use of the confession, the interview and the intimate disclosure, to extend its surveillance of the participants from their behavior to their emotions, desires, and thoughts. Surveillance must penetrate the exterior behavior of subjects and reveal the contents of their consciousness, and conscience. What was once the strict and private domain of therapists, psychotherapists, and counselors and their clients, is now open to public inspection. At one time it was enough for an individual to privately disclose to a professional their secret traumas, but within the mediatized therapeutic ethos, individuals must confess to the listener/camera and its audience, and we must listen and watch. In a society of total surveillance, therapy is no longer a means of helping people with their problems, but has become a technique of rendering us visible and transparent in all aspects of our lives.

So what about The Osbournes? Each member of the Osbournes has a developed performance persona in contrast to the anonymous celebrity wannabes who participate in reality shows. Unlike the participants in most reality shows, the Osbournes have a considerable amount of control over the conditions of production of the show. They negotiate a contract for an amount of money to which they agree, and cameras are not permitted in Ozzy and Sharon's bedroom; in most shows there is no guarantee participants will get the prize and they have no say as to the ground rules.

Furthermore, performance plays too much of a central role in The Osbournes for the show to be categorized within the traditional definition of documentary, according to which any hint of self-conscious performance is an example of artifice or artificiality which then negates any claims to truth or reality. Their lives, up to the point of the show, were intertwined in the music and entertainment industries. Kelly and Jack's careers grew out of Ozzy's career: family life was often "on the road" and contextualized by his performance career. To support this value, each of the Osbourne children dropped out of school, with Sharon's blessing, to pursue their careers. To separate the Osbournes' real lives from performance seems impossible.

The Osbournes may more accurately be defined as a performative documentary, which records the highly reflexive exhibitions of its participants. This subgenre records the presentations of performers from drag queens to rock stars, as exemplified by the film Paris Is Burning. As Stella Bruzzi states, "Performance has always been at the heart of documentary filmmaking and yet it has been treated with suspicion because it carries connotations of falsification and fictionalization, traits that inherently destabilize the non-fiction pursuit." The question that remains, then, is what are the Osbournes performing?

One level of performance is that of the rock star playing "dad." The Osbournes is an example of ethnographic programming, which instead of providing a representation of an obscure tribe in a mountain village to a Western viewer, it brings to mainstream middle-class America this "other" in our midst: a heavy metal rock star and his family in Beverly Hills, a remote community of extreme wealth and fame inaccessible to most Americans other than via television. But Ozzy's perennial working-class features reveal that he is not so "other" to most of us as he putters around the house taking out garbage, scooping up dog waste, and admonishing (with great irony) his kids not to use drugs. There is no otherness evident in these domestic scenes. We're amazed to see this celebrity functioning very much the way we do; we find the familiarity bizarre. Another level of performance is that because real families are so unlike any television portrayal of the family, the Osbournes may flaunt the other end of the TV family/real family dichotomy. They are aware of the precedent and the irony they provide.

The better answer is that the Osbournes, as performative documentary, are performing a new myth of rock 'n roll: the myth of the aging rock star as doting father and the rock star as domesticated family man. Up to this point we have had only two myths for aging rock stars; old Mick and dead Janis. Rock stars either rust or fade away. Ozzy provides us the intimate details of an older rock star as he lives his life outside of his rock 'n roll image: it is an image of an exasperated father and a homebody.

Also, it is important that we realize that MTV was the producer of this new myth. It is now a truism to say that MTV changed rock 'n roll by making it more image-conscious. As the theory goes, rockers themselves were less image-conscious before MTV, less ruled by the laws of photogenic selection, and listeners were free to imagine their own stories and images along with the music. Critics of the music video phenomenon argue that MTV somehow dominated the listener's imagination with a cultural imperialism of the image, though their theory is unfounded because whether or not listeners create their own little narratives or what they do is never discussed or proven. MTV did not make rock 'n roll image conscious; the image was a key component of the performance of rock 'n roll from the beginning, as evidenced by the visuality of live concerts with the youthful male body as the focus. Only think about the pouring over of album covers, magazines, and rock stars appearing in movies and making TV appearances. MTV may have intensified it, but the importance of images for rock 'n roll was always there. What MTV did to transform rock 'n roll was to domesticate the image of rock stars: MTV turned rock stars into TV stars. The image transformed them from rare and luminous to mundane and pixeled. Just as the image of a movie star is elusive in contrast to the pedestrian television star accessible in every home, the presence of rock stars became a standard feature of the home, as ever present as soap operas, commercials, and sitcoms. It is a logical extension of MTV's televisual domestication of rock 'n roll that a rocker's family would star in his own show about home life on MTV.

Yet, is it really a myth if we see their lives in such intimate detail? The myths of rock 'n roll are very distant to real lives. The myths of the lives of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Elvis were about living fast and dying young, something most of us don't do. The aging rock stars are still rock stars, of sort, but we don't have the kind of knowledge of their lives as we have about Ozzy's life. In fact, aging rock stars are really caricatures of their former selves, sans their sex and physical appeal and their connection to youth culture. Rock 'n roll was never about the home; it was about people who lived outside the conventions of patriarchy, the nuclear family, and the traditional home, which was marked by monogamy, sobriety, heterosexuality. The myth of rock 'n roll rebellion offered youth a means of subverting the hearth and home, and the associated drug culture represented a means of escape from those boundaries and rebellion to family and rules. What makes this new myth resonate is that Ozzy is an established icon of the rock 'n roll-as-rebellion myth. Looking at Ozzy as the doting husband, bat-head biter.

MTV had prepared the way for a performative documentary about a rock star "performing" in his home by continually broadcasting into the home images of rock stars performing. Furthermore, Ozzy was the perfect person for this. He has all the characteristics of rock 'n roll excess, but is unusually grounded in his family life. This concept of performativity allows us to focus on the performance of Ozzie Osbourne as a "domesticated" rock star and to view this performance as the origination of a new rock and roll myth; aging rocker as domesticated family man. This new myth is a logical extension of MTV's domestication of the subversive images of rock and roll by situating these images within the everyday patterns of household and family routines through the constant repetition of music videos. This new domestic myth of rock and roll turns out to be the neutralization or containment of rock and roll's transgressive impulses. The reason the show was so popular is that, unbeknownst to MTV, by sheer luck all these elements came together in The Osbournes.


The Belmont Report, Office of the Secretary, Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research, The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, April 18, 1979.

Bruzzi, Stella. New Documentary: A Critical Introduction, Routledge: London, 2000.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books: New York, 1979.

Goode, Erica. "Hey, What if Contestants Give Each Other Shocks?" The New York Times, August 27, 2000, in Ideas and Trends, pg. 3.

Lears, T.J. Jackson, "From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930", in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980, Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, ed., Pantheon Books: New York, 1983.

White, Mimi. Tele-Advising: Therapeutic Discourse in American Television, The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1992.

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