Touchdown for Tom Ballard

Can Tom Ballard's new show ever hope do for Reality TV what Gruen did for Advertising?

2014-08-11_2329Occasionally television decides to hold a mirror up to itself and analyse what it is and isn’t doing: Media Watch, TV Burp, TV TV, Entertainment Tonight….

This week ABC launches a new show that pulls Reality Television apart, Reality Check.

So far ABC has avoided the big Reality franchises that pervade talent shows, renovation, competition, cooking and modelling. But even the public broadcaster has dabbled in the genre: Photo Finish, The Abbey and import ABC2 shows such as Snow, Sex and Suspicious Parents, The Audience and Playing it Straight.

How could we forget, it was ABC that screened Sylvania Waters back in 1992?

The youthful Tom Ballard fronts this panel show from the Gruen Planet camp. While he insists it is no replacement, there will be comedic and discussion elements.

“We’d like to think it will be its own show in its own right but like Gruen we hope it will be a smart and fast, fun show that explains how things work,” he says.

“A lot of people are from the same team as Gruen but we’d like to make it our own.

“But yes we’re getting under the hood of Reality TV just like Gruen did with advertising, I guess.”

He will be joined by three experts, some of whom will be rotated, but at the time of our interview first guests were still under wraps, like a Big Brother lockdown.

“It will be a panel of 3 such as industry experts, behind the scenes producers and a few judges and former contestants being invited back to reflect on their experiences.”

In preparation for the show Ballard is binging on Reality TV -a big ask for any fan. He assures me he is indeed a fan of the genre.

“In high school I was really into Australian Idol but I had to keep that quiet because my family and friends looked down on my fandom of that particular show. I watched it pretty obsessively,” he admits.

“There’s a lot of it I think is crap and a lot that is moving and funny and ridiculous and gets people on TV who would never be on TV. But maybe I see it just as a shitload of potential for jokes and comedy gold mines, so I’m looking forward to that. Laughing and celebrating at everything in the genre.

“I love Come Dine With Me (UK). It’s one of the funniest shows on television. The contestants are competing for a thousand pounds -so little that it’s not worth their time! Some of them are really bad cooks. You always have some old grumpy guy and some young, bisexual vegan and they clash. I love it.”

So which genres are up for grabs? Competition reality, observational reality, variety / reality? There’s debate about definitions, but the answer is yes to all of the above.

“There’s soft-scripted, unscripted, there are all these grey ideas. Where does a game show end and a reality show start? So I guess we’ll be exploring that to some extent within the show,” says Ballard.

“Real people reacting to situations in a real way, when clearly everything around them is manufactured and they are thrown into these circumstances and prove themselves, that’s the gist of Reality to me.”

But there are also political considerations. Australia is still a small production pool. Producers Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder have made reality shows with varying success, from Guerrilla Gardeners to the acclaimed Go Back to Where You Came From. Can Reality Check afford to get too critical when it has strayed into the arena itself?

Go Back to me is a shining example of just how good Reality TV can be, and it can have a really important influence on public debate, done in a cool and credible SBS way.

Bondi Rescue is by CJZ too which, from their point of view is in the ob-doc world and but in awards categories it gets put into (Reality). So that’s a definition kind of thing.

“But anything that falls under the banner and we think leads to an interesting conversation and touches on wider things is up for debate.”

Big brands such as X Factor, The Voice, MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules are on notice, with footage to be used under the Fair Dealing rule that allows for review, criticism and satire.

“They’re pulling upwards of a million viewers every week so that’s where we will have a lot of fun. But there are gems and crazy shit from abroad. Moldova’s Got Talent, Nigeria’s Got Talent, The Voice: Brazil and those iterations give you a global sense of the crazy stuff that’s going down.”

While Ballard will take opportunity to poke fun, he insists the show is not out to take potshots at a medium that has grown a legion of fans. Again, it’s also strategic not to make too many enemies too early.

“Obviously if we just hang shit on a show every week nobody will want to come on and talk about it,” he concedes.

“There are some incredible moments and you can love some parts of a show and not others.

“We think it will be a safe place where people can come and enlighten us about how they make them, I guess.”

Reality Check airs 9pm Wednesday on ABC.

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