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13 June 2024

The reality TV rehabilitation machine

Controversial celebrities from Matt Hancock to Alec Baldwin are turning to the genre to transform their public image. Is it working?

By Sarah Manavis

There was once no greater sign of desperation than a celebrity on reality TV. This transparent scramble for the limelight was synonymous with low-brow depravity. Reality stars were seen as talentless nobodies trying to become celebrities through the cheapest means possible – making it all the more self-debasing for an actually famous person to grasp at relevance through the same methods.

Should we feel the same about the fact that the A-list actor Alec Baldwin will star in a reality series about his family life? It was announced last week that The Baldwins will air on the American TV network TLC from next year. The timing of the announcement, for most, will have obvious significance: Baldwin is just a month away from standing trial for involuntary manslaughter following a 2021 shooting on the set of the film Rust, in which the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed when a gun Baldwin was rehearsing with fired a real bullet (the gun was not meant to be loaded with live ammunition and the film’s armourer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, has been convicted for involuntary manslaughter).

The programme may initially seem financially motivated (his lawyers have stated in court papers that he has struggled to secure work since the shooting). But in the last few years, more established celebrities have turned to reality TV for more than a quick buck at the tail-end of a dwindling career. The Baldwins is just one of a litany of recent reality shows from the already-famous that exploit the directness and popularity of reality TV to rescue their reputations during a time of controversy. A reality series is no longer a death knell, but a vehicle for public rehabilitation – reinvigorating fading careers.

After the success of the 2020 documentary This Is Paris, Paris Hilton has seen a 180-degree flip in her reputation. She has rebranded herself as a savvy businesswoman who had just been playing the role of a ditz. Last year, the boxer Tyson Fury presented himself as a complex family man via his Netflix series At Home with the Furys, receiving critical praise for the depiction of his mental health struggles after a career spent being described as a party boy and womaniser. The Kardashian family ended their reality series, Keeping Up with the Kardashians – which launched them into mainstream fame in the Noughties and became identified with tacky, trash TV, labels they have tried to shake – to launch a slicker version. It is called simply The Kardashians and puts greater focus on their businesses. Figures such as Nigel Farage, Matt Hancock and even Boy George have used appearances on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! to become cosy public figures, despite their contentious personal and political histories.

This trend is a symptom of major shifts in how reality TV is consumed and perceived by mainstream audiences. Firstly, it is increasingly ubiquitous and popular – it’s no longer considered an embarrassing, anti-intellectual genre. Secondly – and relatedly – there has been a rise in self-declared “ethical” reality shows, where mental health is prioritised and duty of care considered to be of the utmost importance, letting viewers feel less guilty about the exploitation inherent to the genre. Thirdly, many of these shows have branded themselves as more “authentic” – with producers creating the illusion that this notoriously staged format is now, instead, putting us behind the curtain to reveal the “truth”.

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All of this is fertile ground for celebrities who have realised that reality TV has become a uniquely effective platform. Unlike social media, reality TV has the big marketing budgets and, on major networks, public trust – making it possible for stars to spread their message much further than any Instagram post could reach. Their pre-existing fame also enables a symbiotic relationship with production companies, as these celebrities often come with their own in-built viewership. Recent scandal only improves outcomes: both celebrity and production company know they can capitalise on the morbid fascination people have with celebrities’ lives. Following his trial, Baldwin will be able to speak directly to viewers himself, presenting a different version of his character – the inevitable, titillating press attention around all of this will likely only make the show more popular for Baldwin and TLC.

Baldwin’s effort to deflect any of the reputational damage he has already incurred as a result of the fatality will be transparent to many viewers who watch The Baldwins. But a series like this has become an increasingly fail-safe means of winning over audiences, without the bad taste that once came with it. Reality TV may never be seen as high brow – but it has metamorphosed into a machine that celebrities can use.

[See also: How Mondeo Man lost faith in politics]

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