On some nights the lights and projections that emanate from our television sets can magically zap away the drudgery of day-to-day life. We can be taken some place else: worlds more inspiring and soul-nourishing than ours; realities not constrained by the same rules and crudities.
Last night was not one of those nights. At least, not if you were watching Channel 9, which featured a suite of programming seemingly designed to provide vision to the apocalypse: a feed right out of Thunderdome, or some depraved gone-to-the-dogs future.
“Australian television has never seen a night of drama quite like this” the voice-over person declared with that creamy snake oil salesman lilt. And yeah, well, that’s one way to put it. There were assertions of “ground-breaking Australian television.” Again, one way to put it, though not the first that comes to mind.
The primary offender was the debut episode of Nine’s new poverty porn reality TV series The Briefcase. At the tail end of the previous program, A Current Affair, a segment transpired whereby the A Current Affair host interviewed an A Current Affair journalist, asking a series of questions about whether A Current Affair were right in how A Current Affair constructed their exclusive A Current Affair report about Nauru’s detention centre. The shock verdict, agreed by both parties, was that A Current Affair did indeed act with faultless professionalism.
Then onto the event proper: a puerile, shamelessly exploitative chunk of crud that follows two poor families who are each given a suitcase of $100,000. They are told they can have all, none or some of it. Whatever spondoolies they decide not to keep (if any) will go to another hard-done-by family. What they don’t know is that the other family have also been given the same briefcase, with the same instructions and stipulations.
In the first episode, we meet Jenny and Jim Carter and Mandy and Rod McCracken and their families. Following a life-threatening attack of bacteria, Mandy lost all her limbs and gets around with two prosthetic arms and two prosthetic legs. The Carters are sixth generation sheep farmers who lost almost everything in bush fires and are in ballooning debt to the banks.
The participants were hoodwinked into it, told bald-faced lies by the network. “We told people we were doing a show called ‘Making Ends Meet’, in which we were going to come and speak to them about their financial situation and provide some financial advice,” says Andrew Backwell, Nine’s head of programming and production.
In other words, the kindly Carters and McCracken’s thought they were taking part in a serious program exploring the economic realities of their day-to-day lives only to discover themselves in a stress-induced moral conundrum, the kind that might have been dreamt up by Heath Ledger’s Joker on one of his off days. As it turns out, the stunt ended handy dandy for both parties, with hugs and smiles and a stuffed briefcase for each.
But what about the next lot? What if the producers target another, truly desperate group of people who consider this their first lucky break in a life full of hardship? What if they are judged and scorned for keeping much-needed coin for themselves? What if mental illness is a factor? What if the cash-for-us-or-them predicament splinters a relationship between two people, leading to the disintegration of an already struggling family?
It doesn’t take much thought to realise there’s a minefield of ethical issues at play. And that Channel 9 producers – the visionaries behind TV par excellence such as You’re Back in the Room – are about the least equipped of anybody to deal with them, not that they would or would want to. It must be hard for employees to admit they’ve been inside the Nine Network building, let alone are on the payroll.
The Briefcase opened, perhaps predictably, to a wave of controversy and shell-shocked responses such as this. Yes, it’s true, the show is almost certainly the most exploitative reality TV program so far to air on Australian screens. And no, you absolutely should not watch it.
More than marking a new nadir, something as crass as The Briefcase speaks volumes about the industry’s current state of play and what grisly happenings may come up in the not-too-distant future. Free-to-air TV has entered the death spiral, the kind of race to the bottom predicted all those years ago when Howard Beale ranted about being mad as hell and not taking it anymore in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 film Network.
Where will it all end? Televised murder, of course, just as it did in Network. A real-life Battle Royale or Running Man or Hunger Games, lavished with bling and sold to the sponsors, each head on the chopping block cracked open like cans of Coke for our amusement.
We’re not there, of course, but the writing’s on the wall. Folk in TV land are very much cognisant that there are two big concurrent movements in television these days: the Golden Age of TV, which showcases some of the very best, and the scourge of reality TV, pimping out the very worst.
They also know that, in terms of platform use, there are two main kinds of behavioural patterns: consumers loading when-you-want-it streaming content (Netflix, Stan, iview etc) or tuning into the dial and throwing themselves at the mercy of ratings-hungry wolves.
The TV networks know all of this, and it scares them. Last night, during the execrable The Briefcase, a show as emotionally underhanded as they come, their fears practically wafted out of the television. The sense of desperation filled the room, as obvious as the commercials for Hungry Jack’s hero brekky roll (a steal at $4.50) or those silly election campaign ads featuring the tradie adorned with a gold watch and silver wrist chain.