Celebrity culture and exploitation: the case of reality TV

Williamson, Milly. 2017. Celebrity culture and exploitation: the case of reality TV. In: M Wayne and D O'Neill, eds. Considering Class: theory, culture and the media in the 21st century. New York: Brill and Haymarket Press. ISBN 9004319514 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

There has been much important work on the role that celebrity culture has played in providing working class audiences with a popular image of meritocracy – fuelled as it has been historically by the myth that anyone can ‘make it’, the sham that fame and fortune are open to all and are desirable (Dyer, 1979). Contemporary television culture has advanced that myth, as more and more ordinary people seem to ‘make it’ on reality TV, even while they are often denigrated. However, instead of focusing on representation, this paper will examine the role of ordinary celebrity in the political economy of the television industry. Producers of reality television came to rely on formats built around ‘ordinary’ celebrity in order to undermine the power of unions representing workers in the US and UK television industries at the end of the 1990s. As in other industries, television attempted to address the challenges thrown up by the development of digital technology, increased competition and rising costs by attacking workers conditions. Unscripted, devoid of actors and less dependent on the skills of other creative and technical personnel, reality TV was able to temporarily side-step unionised labour in the US, while in the UK government policy forced public service broadcasters to outsource to independent companies, who were, unlike the workers in the BBC, non-unionised and often on precarious contracts. Thus an examination of the political economy of reality TV completely undermines the claims made by cultural populists that ordinary celebrity represents ‘democratainment’ (Hartley, 1999 and 2008). But it also opens up questions about the more critical view that reality TV is part of a broader shift in patterns of the social relations of exploitation (Andrejevic 2003, Terranova 2004), whereby ’free’ activities like the ‘work of watching’ TV’ or using the internet are considered to be a mode of exploited labour when media organisations ‘capture’ it and turn it to profit. This is seen to mark a new ubiquitous mode of exploitation that extends out of the factory and workplace and into the ‘social factory’ which is considered to be commensurate with the prominence of media communication and of digitised information in contemporary capitalism (Castells 1996). From this perspective all our activities can by understood as a form of exploitation, where work and leisure are collapsed together in an inescapable web of capitalist domination. This paper will challenge that view by returning to the explanation of exploitation found in Marx’s labour theory of value, to argue that there are important differences between the exploited labour of workers in the media industries and the way that audiences are taken advantage of. Furthermore, the requirement of the television industry to make a profit necessitates attacking the conditions of those who work in the industry and this directly clashes with workers’ need to minimize the rate at which surplus is extracted from their labour, (that is, the rate of exploitation) in order to have a decent life, or at least to be able to sustain themselves. Paradoxically, those companies who exploit workers also directly rely on the surplus value they create, which gives workers in the television industry the collective capacity and potential power to resist, and in the process perhaps, to call for new forms of television reality, both in form and in meaning.

Item Type:

Book Section

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


July 2017Accepted
1 November 2017Published

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Date Deposited:

29 Sep 2017 16:01

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:34



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