Dorothy Hobson, senior lecturer and course leader in Contemporary Media
Benefits Street: an immodest title
The Channel 4 documentary series Benefits Street has caused a legitimate outcry from the residents of James Turner Street in Winson Green, Birmingham.
The five part series was filmed over a year and shows the residents of the area as people on benefits and living, what the production portrays as, a rather feckless life.
The title Benefits Street already designates the series as being about an issue which is of concern to tax payers and a current obsession of the Government. The notion of people living on state benefits carries negative connotations and the series has exploited this aspect of the lives of the people it has selected to represent.
When the first episode was transmitted it gained 4.7 million viewers which was Channel 4’s highest audience since December 2012 and after the initial media coverage of the criticism in regional and national media, the second episode must have delighted the channel when it gained 5 million viewers.
To understand the controversy about the series it is necessary to consider the nature of the observational documentary or its modern incarnation as Reality TV. This is a genre which follows so-called ordinary people while pursuing their everyday lives and tells their story to the viewers. Real people and real lives – but the genre does not show ordinary people.
While the producers may begin with an idea of what their series will be about, they never really know what the final story will be until they have completed the filming. They construct the story from the footage which they acquire during the time spent with the participants. The most important thing to remember is that the producers are always in charge. The participants have no control over the finished programme and although they may be shown extracts they do not have the power to have change anything.
The residents claim that they were told that the series would be about the way a community pulls together to face adversity. Obviously while the producers still think they have fulfilled this commitment, the residents are deeply unhappy with the result.
What the series should tell to anyone who is invited to appear in documentary is that only the most extreme people are likely to be portrayed in the final edit. Reality TV is never about ordinary people, it is always about extra-ordinary people. Whether the portrayal is positive or negative; it is a case of potential participants beware!
Channel 4 commissioners and the producers of Benefits Street have had to respond to both complaints by the residents and have had to appear on local and national media. Channel 4 has now agreed to transmit a live debate after the series has finished transmission. If the reports are to be believed, the residents are insisting on an apology before they appear. This would be a mistake as they should seize the opportunity to put their point of view to the producers on live television. If they insist on anything, it should be that the debate is held in Birmingham.
The right to confront the media after a programme has been transmitted is one which was important to Channel 4 in its early days. The only programme which it produced itself was Right to Reply: everything else being commissioned from Independent and ITV companies. It was produced in-house and transmitted every Friday evening when the channel responded to complaints from viewers or participants in programmes.
The commissioning editor/and or producer responsible for the programme would appear on the programme, which was chaired by Gus MacDonald who was a tough advocate for the viewers or participants. It gave an immediate chance for the producers to have to explain and/or defend themselves and it was taken very seriously by the channel and its executives.
It is a format which could easily be revived and would be a positive and available means of redress for viewers and participants as they have become increasingly a major subject across all media. It would also give producers an opportunity for an unmediated response to their critics.