How Reality Television Crushed Labour

Since the 1990s, reality television has exploded in popularity both for audiences and for television networks. But the story of reality television's inception, as well as representations within the genre, is one of the weakening of labour and the increasingly exploitative employment.

We live in a reality television world. The format not only dominates U.S. television networks, but has manifested itself into the external, more material reality.

The ongoing influence of an entire generation reality TV stars — from the Kardashian family and Paris Hilton to Harry Styles and Kelly Clarkson — attests to the power of broadcasting ‘authentic’ representations of either wealth and celebrity or the competition of game shows. Instagram and TikTok are in many ways built on foundations of celebrity culture developed by reality TV. And we can’t omit the titan of manifest destiny, Donald Trump, who’s appearance in The Apprentice — where he plays a stern and all-knowing CEO — broke him through a long pursued level of widespread popularity, and eventually catapulted him to the United States presidency.

Unsurprisingly then, the number of reality television programs has exploded in recent years. It has become the pizza of broadcasting. Networks all over the world are able to replicate a cheap, simple and successful formula which has a guaranteed appeal. Netflix alone has dozens of reality TV shows ranging from design and self-help to a myriad of barely distinguishable romance-themed pseudo-competitions. 

Reality television is powerful because it draws on the emotional power of documentary filmmaking and combines it with the extensive editing, production strategies, coercion and low-budget techniques pioneered by news television. It aims to entertain rather than inform, packaged and marketed in a broadly consumable style.

A sub-genre of reality television, make-over reality television, which includes landmark programs such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Home Makeover of the early 2000s, have given way to voyeuristic entertainment predicated on psychological stages of conflict, reflection, acceptance, and transformation. The format provides an easily digestible narrative with a satisfying conclusion. Resolutions unfold in a neat, short time frame. Typically, a person, group or business is selected as meriting of assistance before receiving resources, consultation, expertise, and publicity to help them achieve their goals.

These makeover shows, especially business-oriented ones like Kitchen Nightmares and Bar Rescue, tell us a lot about power dynamics between ownership and labour in the hospitality industry and more generally as well as the techniques used by managerialist consultants to justify their practices and position.

Locating the shift to reality television

Contemporary reality television first began to emerge in the United States in the early 1990s. Production companies shifted to this format as a response to labour movements within the industry.

In 1988, the Writers Guild of America held their longest strike in history, lasting almost half a year. It crippled the production of films and television in particular, with many of the biggest shows on television having their seasons delayed, and networks turning to re-runs, political programming, and sports to fill the gaps. Writers were primarily demanding greater compensation and increased creative power. In the end a precarious deal was struck with the major networks, the long-term effects of which were disatrous for writers.

It was in this climate that networks introduced early reality television programs like COPS and America’s Most Wanted. These were programs relying almost entirely on real world footage in a haphazard documentary-style genre, which virtually removed the threat of union strikes and the collective bargaining of writers. They vastly stripped down production costs by using amateur (and often voluntary) participants rather than professional actors, eliminated the need for a large talented writing staff, and placed the bulk of the work on editing, which is a more interchangeable and less unionised occupation than writers (Grazien, 2010). 

This shift reinforces the role of the private sector as charity giver and reproduces hyper-competitiveness, presenting employment and success as meritocratic. 

If we divide the hours worked by the end prize of for example, then Survivor winners stand to earn — 1,000,000 / (39 x 24) = $1,000 an hour, while Big Brother contestants compete for $210 an hour. And of course, only one contestant will earn this, with all other contestants competing virtually for free — along with any appearance fees, travel costs, bonus prizes and image publicity they stand to receive.

Though it is still more gladiator than professional sport, as they don’t receive any kind of wage and only the winner is directly rewarded. The justification is that the show is providing the opportunity to win a large sum of money to ‘ordinary’ people.

Origins of Reality

Aside from the pseudo-documentary products which purported to capture real life danger like COPS, shows that emerged to define the genre of reality television focussed on controversial societal issues and domestic conflict. The Jerry Springer Show, which debuted in 1991 and started as a political talk show, quickly morphed into a conflict-resolution and arbitration platform for civil disputes, often involving topical issues which were subequently discussed by its title host. MTV’s The Real World, meanwhile, which began in 1992, set the format for house-sharing between strong personalities from diverse backgrounds.

Fusing together elements from teen dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990) with documentaries like An American Family (1974) — that focussed on the seemingly innocuous and monotonous inner lives of a chosen family but produced emotional and relatable situations — it offered new kind of entertainment than audiences were used to. ‘Real’ characters with their own unique traits, desires, conflicts and relationships were in many ways more engaging and direct than pre-written drama.

This set-up was ripe for domestic conflict, as participants were forced to manage interpersonal relationships with ‘total strangers’, providing the blueprint for future reality shows such as Survivor, The Bachelor and Big Brother. Tasks and challenges are devised to sow tension and unrest in the household, and television cameras are ready to capture it all.

By the 2000s, reality television shows were outranking scripted shows on American networks, which a plethora of concepts blooming, many of which were competition-based. One category which became popular was the ‘makeover’ or ‘self-improvement’ genre. The premise is that a person, a group, or a business is selected — usually because of personal hardship or managerial incompetence — to receive the resources, consultation, and publicity of a television program to help them achieve financial or personal success. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was a trailblazer, which as the name suggests, involved a group of homosexual self-proclaimed style experts revolutionising the unimaginative wardrobe of an average heterosexual man.

This focus on personal development, similar to Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, is designed to be ultra-positive, with plenty of high notes and a minimum of friction. The advice is accepted by the expert, sometimes with great reluctance, before all characters are able to reflect on the improvements and benefits to their personal lives. Importantly, the expert must be a charismatic, likeable — or at least respectable — character, who guides us through the story and helps us understand.

And because reality television is built around personality, this makeover genre has increasingly incorporated experts which generate a more valuable type of entertainment: conflict. Volatility, instability, anger, delusion and narcissism have become gold mines for the industry.

Kitchen Nightmares

Enter Gordan Ramsay, an English-Scottish chef infamous for his expletive tirades, harsh working conditions and immensely successfully restaurants. After two successful BBC documentaries Boiling Point (1999) and Beyond Boiling Point (2000) that chronicled the obsessive commitment involved in pursuing the culinary crown of three Michelin stars; Ramsay was given his own show in an emerging format sometimes referred to as ‘belligerent broadcasting’.

Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares takes Gordon’s expertise as a world-class chef and throws applies them to the world of small, failing, and often comedically run restaurants in an attempt to fix their relatively amateur mistakes. His role is to help owners identify issues, re-design menus and decor, and to train cooking staff.

The show traditionally follows a three-act structure. First, owners and staff members are confronted about their shortcomings; then there is a period of often tumultuous acceptance; before they are given advice and material assistance to make substantial changes, culminating in a grand ‘re-opening’ debuting a new restaurant. The story is punctuated by moments of self-help style mentorship, where Ramsay inspires owners to realise their potential for commercial success in the hyper-competitive restaurant industry.

In the first incarnation of Kitchen Nightmares, Ramsay operated within the constraints of a low budget and a limited time frame. By the time it was adapted for a United States audience in 2007, the budget had ballooned dramatically, which enabled almost every episode to include an entire makeover of the business’ interior design and expensive equipment upgrades for the kitchen or front-of-house.

This changes the tone of the show, which shifts from a slow-paced heartfelt documentary centred around Ramsay’s mentoring of young cooks; to a bombastic, heavily dramatised and superficial narrative, underscored by sharp and suspenseful music. As in film, the music helps guide our emotions towards the depiction intended by Ramsay and the show. We are instructed as to whether characters are goofy, unaware, arrogant, sympathetic, or simply entertaining.

In the earlier U.K. version there are many heartfelt moments with young apprentices, cooks and chefs who have lost their passion or enthusiasm. They often appreciate the expertise, time, and advice of one of the leading chefs in the world. This has led critics to praise the authenticity of early episodes and dissect the differences between the two, which reflects the American appetite for dramatic television and a broader transition towards conflict-centred entertainment.

What Ramsay Reveals about Ownership

The program thematically depicts restaurant owners as inexperienced, narcissistic, resistant to change, impervious to criticism and ignorant to the harsh realities of the hospitality industry. In some of the more infamous projects, such as Amy’s Baking Company, owners are presented as delusional, dangerous, and outright abusive. But by the end of each episode they are usually redeemed after endorsing Ramsay’s changes and committing themselves to the business.

The true heroes are the workers, who dutifully obey the absurd demands of owners with composure and patience. This patience, of course, is largely a product of the coercion inherent in the relationship between them. Hospitality workers depend on this income for their livelihood and are some of the most vulnerable people of the working class — relying on gratuity to subsidise shockingly low wages.

Gordon often finds himself empathising with the waiters, waitresses and kitchen staff, who have legitimate grievances about dealing with the aggression and temperament of the owners, making for a hostile and at times abusive workplace. Conversely, chefs are a recurring target of Gordon’s ire, but only to the extent that they are unwilling to embrace change. He is quick to recognise when the menu is constricted by micro-managing owners and allocates blame towards management instead.

This points to a great injustice at the heart of private ownership. Access to capital gives these owners the power to dictate the working conditions of their employees. While a job is expected to be earned through performance — especially at ‘entry-level’ and ‘low-skilled’ levels — capital can be secured through inheritance, status, loan or luck.

Nearly half of all workers in the private workforce are employed by small businesses. This statistic helps to create the ethos of the ‘American dream’ where anyone can achieve success through their own enterprise. But given the amount of start-up capital required — an average has been estimated at $80,000 in the U.S. — access to credit is crucial. So then when reported discrimination in lending against minorities is factored in, we can see how a class- and racially-based power structure emerges between white wealthy owners and poorer minority employees.

In an episode of Hotel Hell (Ramsay’s foray into the hotel industry) two sisters in their early twenties have convinced their father to buy a hotel for them, despite lacking any hospitality or managerial experience. These ingredients are a guaranteed hit for reality television, with the conflict between rich, spoilt, oblivious owners and hard-working, under-appreciated workers effortlessly producing drama.

Neo-Ramsay: Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue

What came after Kitchen Nightmares made Gordon Ramsay look like a monk. Bar Rescue, a reality show beginning in 2011, uses the same formula and narrative structure — but focuses on bars and nightclubs instead of restaurants. Our host and resident expert is Jon Taffer, whose Wikipedia page tells us is a “successful business man” “born into a family of entrepreneurs”.

He is marketed as America’s answer to Gordon Ramsay — but with considerable more anger, less personality or charm, and a fraction of the expertise. He is also a creator and producer of the show. Taffer seeks to imitate Ramsay’s style of speaking that “cuts through evasion and obfuscation in the name of immediacy, authenticity, truth and understanding.” Taffer has been attacked by professional bartenders when his questionable knowledge of bartending basics was exposed in what was intended to be a light puff piece.

With Bar Rescue, we see the transition from the expert advisor who performs, demonstrates, and teaches staff; to the ‘consultant’ who offers a more detached managerial perspective. The business advice is purportedly based on ‘bar science’, which Taffer uses to trains staff — though largely delegates to experts. Taffer never proves his expertise in the way that Ramsay uses his cooking to reinforce his authority. Our only evidence for his reputation is the introduction given in a prologue touting his ‘decades of experience’ in the bar and nightclub industry.

His so-called ‘bar science’ seems to be a combination of pop-psychology and Business For Dummies, and the show refrains from using any data or statistics other than a smattering of business-related formulas in the opening credits. This ‘science’ regularly involves objectifying attractive women as commodities to improve the atmosphere of the bar:

“[…] There will never be two hundred women lined up at the front of this bar … But if I can get just a few women to come here, then we’re attaining a level of respectability where at least you can come here and your wife won’t kill you.”
— Fallen Angles’ (2011)
Bar Rescue — Season 1, Episode 1

“You have two nice looking women, well dressed, laughing and having fun. Why wouldn’t you make sure that they’re taken care of …
“[The women] are going to get more people in. They’re gonna get guys to stay and spend money.”
— ‘Don’t Cry For Me Jon Taffer” (2018) Bar Rescue — Season 6, Episode 27

And par for the course, there have been many accusations that the show is either staged or heavily exaggerated. A lawsuit filed by a participant claimed that bar staff, including the owner, were instructed by the production team to act as outlandish as possible to be selected for the show. The owner claimed that he was then prompted to make offensive comments to women at the bar, including Taffer’s wife, before being verballing and physically abused by Taffer when confronted.

These claims and the content of each episode are examples of ‘confrontational entertainment’ that runs through much of the reality television genre. In the introduction to most episodes, we are spectators to the dysfunctional subject bar as things gradually escalate. We are flies on the wall in professional and personal abuse, mistreatment and drama. We sit with Jon as he waits outside in a car, waiting for the right time to confront bar owners who are often drinking, mismanaging, and portrayed as incompetent.

Like Kitchen Nightmares, Bar Rescue’s narrative structure leans heavily on the final makeover pay-off where furniture, décor, lighting, and bar equipment is upgraded. In other words, there is a huge injection of capital. This is not so much ‘advice’ or ‘consultation’ as it is providing business owners with material resources. Identifying this element helps us see the subjects more as charity receivers that business owners.

This makes Taffer’s treatment of owners and his prescribed prerequisite psychological steps borderline sadistic. He explicitly holds the threat of pulling out of the show (and with it the injection of capital) to coerce owners into acting the way he wants. Here is an exchange from season six, ‘Dalia’s Inferno’, in which the owner Dalia Demoore (DD) is humiliated in order to continue receiving help from John Taffer (JT):

DD: I need your f***ing help, come back please.
JT: Is what you’re doing working?!
DD: No!
JT: Are you failing?!
DD: Yes!
JT: Why are you failing?!
DD: Because I’m a f***ing loser!
JT: So, are you ready to not be a loser?!
DD: I need your f***ing help!
DD: Yes!
JT: Well then say it, ‘I am a loser and I want to stop!’, say it!
JT: I will put money in your wallet if you keep your tits in your shift!
JT: First of all, don’t tell me to do anything. I do what I want. And your job is to say, ‘yes sir, Mr. Taffer’, and I’ll save your ass.

There is a significant class component to these interactions, where a certain group’s — usually working-class bar owners — standards and behaviours are found to be unsuitable. In various episodes Jon Taffer calls owners ‘disgusting’, ‘shameful’, ‘an embarrassment’ and having ‘no class’. The term ‘working-class’ has been shed in lieu of ‘ordinary’, arbiters of their behaviour are from a distinct social group, and so reality television serves to reproduce class dynamics whereby working-class lifestyles are condemned for their lack of self-governance and discipline, thereby justifying their socioeconomic position.

Reality television is one of the few remaining mediums where class divides are readily observable, and it most often revolves around the opinions and expertise of a middle-class group guiding the working-class who are subjected to criticism and judgment.

Beating Down the Working Class

Employees are equally unable to avoid the humiliation that owners experience from Taffer. In fact, in most cases, it’s much worse. The underlying ethic of the show is that workers should be so committed to their workplace that they go above and beyond their contractual obligations, lifting the business’ reputation, productivity and ultimately profits of the owner. Workers are never conceptualised as exploited, precarious subjects or contextualised into the backdrop of a coercive labour market.

In an episode in the third season, when an employee is overwhelmed by the pace of orders, Taffer aggressively asks her whether “crying is going to make things better?” and tells her that she is “full of shit.” Aside from lacking any constructive component, this treatment ignores the undeniable influence that a film crew, a screaming host, and constant observation would have on any normal person’s professional performance.

“Inciting shame and guilt are key techniques for inciting compliance to potential transformation. Insecurity has to be generated so that security can be achieved…”

Skeggs, 2009: 635

This view is reinforced by the viewpoint of the show, which focusses on empathising with the owners and the stress involved with running a business rather than the lives of minimum wage employees. YouTube comments on Bar Rescue videos also endorse this power dynamic between owners and employees, agreeing that employees should be invested in a business beyond its function as a source of income:

What’s worse is that not only are these employees subject to the incompetence of the owners, managers and temperamental Jon Taffer, they are also participating in the television show as unpaid performers. Since they are all required to sign release forms consenting to their filming and distribution of footage, they were presumably instructed by their employers to do so in the interest of the business.

They are used for the profit of owners and when the business asset declines, they are used for the profit of television companies. Here, identities are constructed through presentation, editing, and music, where they are integrated into tv-friendly role as either a hero or a villain, and are fired when there is no further value for their conflict or emotion.

Taffer is frequently fixated on blaming the issues of establishments on the behaviour or attitude of employees. Allegedly, Taffer’s first job involved “getting an entire staff fired.” When offered to co-operate with colleagues in skimming money from the register, he informed the owner of the company which led to the firing of the staff and his own promotion.

This attitude continues into Bar Rescue. After firing employees he deems problematic, Jon will reassure owners that they made the right decision and that the business will dramatically improve. He makes sure that his initial — often admittedly split second — judgments are manifested by coercing the owners. 

Taffer often offers an ultimatum for bar owners to ensure that his decisions are carried out or to pressure staff into admitting to doing certain things. He threatens to ‘walk out’ and not remodel the owners’ bar. In this confrontation, Taffer yells at a staff member and calls her a ‘fucking idiot’ for not being more invested in the property and having no savings. 

Other times the treatment is explicitly degrading. For instance, when Taffer threatens to (and does) ‘embarrass’ an employee in front of his patrons, the employee yells back at him, at which point Taffer runs to the owners and gives them a clear ultimatum: “either he is leaving this bar now or I am!”. The owners must then decide between the capital, resources, expertise, publicity and advertising of Taffer’s show; and the low-wage replaceable employee.

The Managerial Spirit

This is the bulk of the ‘advice’ that he provides, while most of the practical knowledge is communicated through expert practitioners of bartending, front-of-house and hosting, or cooking. Delegating like this is textbook managerialism, where subcontractors are the workers with true expertise and knowledge while managers (in this case Jon Taffer) present themselves as ‘experts of experts’ uniquely skilled in arranging and employing all of their services. The advice mirrors the advice of consultancies and management strategy firms, where labor-costs are cut in favour of managerial value.

The mistreatment of labourers in shows like Bar Rescue is not an isolated phenomenom. It is built on the hyper-insecurity of United States hospitality workers — who often times rely on customer tips for their wage — as well as the history of reality television as a format.

Television executives responded to disruptive union strikes in the 1980s by not only severely weakening the position of labourers in the television industry (writers), but also roping unpaid performers (the public, cast members) into participating in an end product which ultimately exists purely to generate profits.

In other words, labour was crushed by the power of capital, which matches broader trends from the 1980s onwards where productivity gains have not been rewarded by wage gains and the share of income divided between capital and labour has dramatically favoured the former.

Jon Taffer, much more so than Gordon Ramsay, reflects this power. His treatment of workers as disposable, replaceable, and his demands that employees internalise the goals of the companies they work for are all symptoms of beaten down workforce. But he is just an extreme representation of the power employers, owners of capital, and a class of managers have over the working class.

Workers are subject to the incompetence, psychology, insecurities and inherent individuality of their bosses, which their livelihood and material security ultimately depend on. This concentration of power is at the core of power inequalities within capitalist societies.

And although these reality television programs are not true depictions of the world, they represent mechanisms that do exist — between labour and capital. And as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes, television is used to construct society through an institutional selection of actors, content, and perspectives.

What reality television reveals about labour is its complete domination by capital. This is in line with trends from the 1980s onwards, where the labour share of income has declined in favour of capital’s share, where the increased productivity of worker’s is not being matched by higher wages.

While reality television may be broad, crude, artificial and needlessly dramatic, it nevertheless offers an important insight to the conditions of workers under twenty-first century capitalism. It showcases the ideology of ownership, expectations of workers, broader economic trends of labour power, and the history of its production is itself a history of cost-cutting and the pivot to anti-union business models.


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