One of the first shots of The Secret Life of Students, Channel 4's latest documentary series which follows the first weeks of a group of students at Leicester University, is a scroll through one fresher’s Facebook profile. In between a picture of a drunken student sat in a trolley and a pixellated clip of a fresher streaking, a patronising voice-over chirps “you can tell Josie is popular from a quick peek at her Facebook page, she’s got over 1,200 friends!”. Later, they ask another subject why he actively seeks more followers on Twitter and his awkward stammering response “Just- I don’t know why- it’s weird... Probably competition” perfectly and hypocritically captures Channel 4’s own thirst for viewing figures. The pervasive theme of fame-hungry students, each of which have given Channel 4 access to their Facebook messages, texts and tweets throughout freshers’ week, reflects Channel 4’s own greed for shocked reactions from audiences.
The documentary teams are uninterested in accurately representing social groups – epitomised by My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street – when they have selected outrageous subjects who will give audience the response they crave to incite. This response is shock and Channel 4 has perfected their formula for it:
1. Include a provocative title such as Gypsy Blood and My Social Network Stalker which could easily be confused with a headline from Pick Me Up! Magazine.
2. In the style of Big Brother contestants, choose subjects who can perform in front of the cameras and play up the stereotype they have been carefully selected for.
3. Inspire viewers to tweet about their despair for humanity to create further publicity.
This agenda is the result of Channel 4’s systematic search for documentaries which cause controversy instead of seeking to portray social groups in an accurate and considered way. The current trend of “scripted reality” seen in Channel 4’s export Made in Chelsea, which follows the elite 1 per cent, has shaken up what the channel think their audiences want. Do viewers desire aspirational television or depictions of the reality of lives under crippling government cuts? The ‘Cutting Edge’ segment of their documentary strand defies the gloss of Made in Chelsea (although just out of shot of the skinny lattes are council estates, but that would ruin the soft focus glow of the product placement) yet the effect is a jeering condemnation of groups in society which are already demonised.
Earlier this week Ofcom decided against an investigation into Channel 4’s documentary Benefits Street despite recieving nearly 900 complaints about the “negative and offensive” portrayal of the lives of those on benefits. The programme raised concerns over the welfare of the children who appeared in the programme and questions of whether the detailed portrayal of criminal activity would inspire viewers to use the subject’s shoplifting techniques. Although Ofcom let Channel 4 off the hook, this perfectly encapsulates the way viewing figures are sought to the detriment of quality. These series have the potential to be hard-hitting reports from the front line of society where people are struggling to make ends meet. In Benefits Street there are juxtapositions such as one inhabitant of James Turner Street in Birmingham declaring the importance of family, with the optimistic sentiment “you could have the whole world and still nothing compares to what we’ve got around here” cruelly followed by a man staggering past the street sign, swearing at the camera and clutching a can of lager.
These are not cutting-edge documentaries. These are production teams hunting down stereotypes and filming them in their natural habitat, cutting them together so as to reinforce as many stereotypes as possible. In one scene in The Secret Life of Students one fresher finds out they have chlamydia and texts her friends saying “LOOOL”. In another a group of students play the drinking game Ring of Fire, with a Nazi twist and when one history student whose idol is Anne Frank, complains at the students using their fingers as moustaches to mimic Hitler, she is ignored. Scene after scene includes more shock value. There is no ground-breaking or even relatable footage about the struggles of leaving home for the first time and the awkward stage of meeting new housemates and instead Channel 4’s aim is to gain viewing figures by provoking outrage, an angle similar to BBC3 ‘s exports Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. A far cry from the Louis Theroux's unassuming interviewing technique of asking insightful questions at a distance, these programmes are part of the Jeremy Kyle school of thought, depicting predictable narratives which vilify groups which are already looked down upon by most of society . With The Secret Life of Student’s omniscient but off screen interviewer, the audience sat at home on their sofa assumes the role of Kyle sneering down from his moral high horse.
The Channel 4 website outlines what they want from prospective film makers, stating that “If you have ideas that are agenda setting, risky, controversial, and could never have been made before, we want to hear about them”, adding “our strongest commissions are often ones that, at the outset, feel the most dangerous”. Their rallying cry for producers to deliver them “the most daring and controversial ideas” inevitably leads to programmes equally as hyperbolic. When Aiden, the fresher who lists his interests on Facebook as the Kardashians, Nek Nominate and Right Wing Conservative views is questioned about his “banter” he answers “I just love pushing the boundaries”. A line which, ironically, could easily appear in the Channel 4 documentary manifesto.