Elvis kicked off a passion for watching us watching them

January 21, 2005

As a scholarly observer of reality TV, Annette Hill was impressed by the decision of Germaine Greer, a fellow academic, to appear in the current series of Celebrity Big Brother .

"I think it was definitely a good idea for her to go in, and I suspect it was primarily because she has such a critical take on Big Brother ," said Professor Hill, who is director of research at the School of Media, Art and Design at Westminster University.

"She made some very perceptive points, and it was a real shame that she left early as she made Big Brother a topic to be discussed seriously."

Although she applauds Professor Greer, Professor Hill balks at the idea of taking part in a Big Brother -style show herself. "I wouldn't last five minutes. The thought of being shut up in an enforced prison and being filmed would be so uncomfortable."

She is, nonetheless, passionate about the subject, which she examined in her most recent book, Reality TV , which was published in November.

"Working on Reality TV has been the highlight of my career, it's been like researching a moving target," she said.

"When I first started researching reality TV in the late Nineties, it primarily meant docusoaps such as Airport or infotainment such as 999. Then with the arrival of Big Brother and the success of other types of formats, such as Wife Swap , we've seen reality TV expand to the point where the category itself doesn't really do justice to the range of programmes."

Her interest in film and television dates back to childhood. One of her most vivid memories is of the coverage of Elvis Presley's death. "The news footage was really important to me - sitting in my living room I felt part of a world event," she said.

Her first job was as an usherette in a cinema. It provided a way of earning while watching films, although there were downsides. "I always missed the crucial middle part because I was preparing the ice cream outside. I saw Three Men and a Baby 50 times but never saw the middle."

She studied literature and film, then took a PhD in social theories of risk, violence and mass media at Roehampton University. She was senior lecturer in media at Thames Valley University before she joined Westminster in 1998.

She now heads a team of 100 staff in a department rated 5 in the research assessment exercise. The department covers subjects as diverse as communications studies and ceramics.

In the debate about the merits of reality TV, Professor Hill finds that media pundits often patronise the audiences of such shows, whose voices are rarely heard.

"These are not dumb viewers," said Professor Hill, who has spent years researching TV audiences. "Some people are very aware of the staged reality of these programmes, and viewers often judge reality TV from the view of performance.

"They are like computer game-players, and they quickly learn to play the game of reality TV. They are perceptive about the inherent contradictions in TV, in that it is there to entertain and inform us."

Her study of Big Brother included spending a year researching issues such as viewing preferences among reality TV viewers.

The research led to Reality TV and to a paper, Watching Big Brother , which last year won the top faculty award in the popular communication division of the International Communication Association.

Early in her career, Professor Hill, a fan of Quentin Tarantino's 1992 film Reservoir Dogs , noticed that there was a gaping lack of research into the audiences of violent movies.

"The way the press talked about the audiences of violent movies seemed wrong because it wasn't why I was going to the cinema," she said.

"People are violent, and we need to look at the cause of that and not blame films or assume that audiences are looking for a dubious type of pleasure."

Her first book, Shocking Entertainment: Viewer Response to Violent Movies (1997), gave the audience a chance to speak out.

Professor Hill said: "I was asking what people enjoyed about watching these films and what their reasons were for watching something that was shocking and entertaining. I found that watching violence was a safe environment for people to experience extreme emotions."

She is also interested in the way people watch television at certain points in their lives. With David Gauntlett in 1999, she wrote TV Living , an investigation of the role of television in everyday life.

The book grew out of the British Film Institute's Audience Tracking Survey, a five-year study that examined the relationship 500 people had with their televisions and how it varied as they experienced life's changes. Professor Hill was research coordinator on the survey and, once again, the voice of the viewer was at the heart of her research.

"Through the study, viewers were able to talk about the ups and downs of their relationship with television as it interacted with key life stages, such as leaving home, going to university, getting married or divorced."

So, does the fact that Professor Hill watches countless hours of television as part of her work mean that she finds it hard to watch for pleasure?

The answer is an emphatic "no". In fact, some of the programmes Professor Hill enjoys most are reality shows.

"My favourite reality TV series was The Edwardian Country House . There were some really interesting characters who went through a genuine life-changing experience," she said.

"I like the melodrama in a lot of reality TV programmes such as Animal Hospital , and the way reality TV lets you watch events unfold. But I also like the playful staged reality of programmes such as Temptation Island ."

Middlesex University

at 16, working as an usherette in my local cinema

to find a healthy balance between research, administration and teaching

missing deadlines

hope to be doing a study of the way media audiences, users and consumers make sense of the media and of everyday life. I'd like to look at spending a year in the life of about 30 households in the UK and replicate the study abroad

"Tragically, I was an only twin" - Peter Cook

The Sopranos .

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