Britain’s Channel 4 has found itself under fire following the broadcast of its latest reality documentary series, Benefits Street. The show spent a year filming the residents of Birmingham’s James Turner Street, where the majority of residents receive government benefits. Those residents have since complained that the show misrepresented them, and that Channel 4 and production company Love Productions misled them by pitching a show about the strength of their community, only to concentrate on crime and arguments in the final edit.
The furore quickly spilled out across the British news media, with newspapers on the left decrying the exploitation apparently on display, while those on the right took up arms against the dependency culture it supposedly revealed. For Channel 4, the media sensation will certainly have provided a boost to ratings as those hearing about the show tune in for future episodes, or catch up via on-demand.
Today’s audiences are more “reality savvy.” They know that such shows are carefully edited and presented.
But who benefits from the Benefits Street scandal? Certainly those press pundits savaging the show – and its stars – appear to have jumped the gun, making their judgements after just one episode. The subsequent episode, with its focus on Romanian immigrants and the street’s entry in the Britain in Bloom contest, were certainly less contentious and more even-handed. Even so, today’s audiences are more “reality savvy” than ever before. They know that such shows are carefully edited and presented, and that this process can lend itself to editorial sleight of hand. This isn’t to say that such manipulation has happened in this case, but the suspicion inherent in the format means those working in this field need to tread more carefully than ever before.
While Channel 4 and Love Productions’ intentions may have been pure, they’ve been poorly communicated. From the tabloid-friendly title and the front-loaded debut episode, to Channel 4’s clumsy PR response to the controversy, it seems that media impact was favoured over meaningful commentary. Many are the shows that have tried to excuse a sensational approach by “starting a debate”, and while Benefits Street has certainly done that it may have done so at the cost of the broadcaster’s credibility.
The long term loss of audience trust may not be worth the short term increase in ratings.
Shows such as Benefits Street are hugely important, offering a glimpse into real lives that are too often assigned to the television margins, and Channel 4 is to be commended for its commitment to such challenging topics, but any future UK show tackling similar subjects will now launch under the cloud surrounding Benefits Street. It may be true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the long term loss of audience trust may not be worth the short term increase in ratings.