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‘They lean into the drama!’ How explosive Australian reality TV took over

Married at First Sight Australia Show caption Ratings winner … Married at First Sight Australia. Photograph: Channel 4
Television

From the pressure cooker that is Married at First Sight to mayhem on MasterChef, Britain has fallen in love with unscripted Aussie TV – controversial conflicts and all

In a very crowded field, Married at First Sight (MAFS) is surely the most ridiculous reality TV show on our screens. The concept is simple: total strangers agree to tie the knot, without so much as seeing a photograph of their future spouse. The sixth series of the UK version has been a hit – it was E4’s highest-rated original series launch yet.

A ratings peak in season six might seem unusual, but there is an explanation: Australia. During the winter lockdown, the Australian version of MAFS became a guilty pleasure for Britain’s binge-watchers, with an average of 1.57 million viewers tuning in for its 33 hour-long, scandal-filled episodes. Channel 4 then confirmed that the UK show would be relaunched, ditching its more staid documentary feel for the drama-focused format of its far-flung cousin.

After the success of the revamped UK version, the Australian series returns to UK screens this week. Continuing the trend, the Australian version of The Bachelor is now on E4, with the Australian Apprentice launching on BBC iPlayer next week.

MAFS Australia was a revelation: part docuseries, part soap opera, with “experts” who aren’t afraid to be combative. Contestants are put through various challenges, group activities and make-or-break “commitment ceremonies”, leading to a steady stream of conflict. Episodes are heavily edited with dramatic sound effects and confessional interviews. The couples are mostly confined to a hotel, creating a pressure-cooker atmosphere. The last Australian series to air in the UK featured wife swapping, physical fights and – surprisingly – couples who stayed together.

MAFS is just the latest in a long line of ridiculous, addictive reality shows from Australia. Among them is MasterChef Australia, which is renowned as one of the world’s most entertaining and chaotic food shows. Its latest series was a gigantic 64 episodes long and featured world-famous guest judges and a $250,000 (£134,000) prize. Elsewhere, Instant Hotel – a supersized Four in a Bed, complete with sob stories, eye-wateringly expensive real estate and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen – is similarly bizarre.

The cast of season five of The Real Housewives of Melbourne The cast of season five of The Real Housewives of Melbourne. Photograph: Sam Tabone/WireImage

Overall, the Australian slant on “structured” reality shows tends to involve a lot more havoc. Love Island: Australia, for example, frequently features aggressive and physical confrontations rarely seen in the UK version. The Real Housewives of Melbourne might lack the multimillion-dollar fraud allegations of its US counterparts, but it makes them look tame in terms of drinking, fiery conflicts and swearing. A sister show, the Real Housewives of Sydney, was eventually axed after being rejected by Bravo – the US network that created the Real Housewives franchise in 2006 – for being “too extreme”, because of aggressive behaviour from the cast. On Australia’s Next Top Model – a notoriously vicious show, infamous for crowning the wrong winner on live TV in 2010 – a contestant on series three was reduced to tears after being repeatedly sworn at by one of the show’s judges.

But why is Australian reality TV so explosive? Patrick Lenton, editor of the Australian pop culture and news website Junkee, says the constant action is partly driven by how little free-to-air TV Australia has compared with bigger countries. “A whole media landscape has grown that waits on literally any crumb of interest from the bigger reality TV franchises,” he says. “This means that contestants who lean in to drama and conflict get lots of coverage, and it becomes part of [the shows’] marketing strategy to encourage that.”

Australian free-to-air TV also has “transmission quotas”. These rules are supposed to ensure all audiences are being served, in a similar way to how the BBC operates in the UK. Reality TV is cheap to make and reaches young audiences, so the end result is that Australia produces a lot of it for a country with a small population. Lenton says Australian dramas and comedies “sometimes have a hard time getting noticed, especially in competition with streaming … Reality TV seems to be the only money-making proposition”.

For British people, there is a familiarity to watching Australians on TV, a hangover from the days when Neighbours and Home Away were must-see viewing. There are also wider aspects of Australian culture that make for addictive viewing. When Australians get angry, for instance, there tends to be a lot of swearing. In fact, even when they are all getting on, there is swearing. (In 2017, a court ruled the word “cunt” was not necessarily offensive in Australia because of how often it is used.)

Maaike Klein, 27, thinks MAFS Australia captures an innocence that was missing from UK screens. “British reality TV has changed a lot,” she says. “It’s full of polished influencers who are so perfect that it makes you feel bad about yourself. They’re already Instagram famous so don’t fully let go on camera,” she says. Ava Pullar, 28, agrees that there is an element of guilty pleasure about watching Australians being so unfiltered. “There’s a bit of a superiority complex watching people behaving recklessly and strangely – like literally getting married to a stranger,” she says. “But that still feels more relatable than reality TV here [in the UK], where it often feels scripted.”

Season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. Photograph: Sacha Stejko/BBC/World of Wonder

David Mack of Buzzfeed News says the idea of being a “straight shooter” is deeply embedded in Australian culture. This can be seen anywhere from reality TV to its political language. “A key theme in Australia is we don’t like people who we think are looking down on others, which is a holdover from British colonialism. We tend to make fun of them to cut them down to size,” says Mack, who previously worked at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney. “We also don’t tolerate bullshit, like I think Americans tend to. Our politicians, for example, are not known for soaring speeches full of rhetorical flourish meant to inspire. And our reporters also tend to be much more combative when interviewing politicians.”

These dynamics influence how Australians converse with each other and how reality TV stars behave in front of the camera. The surrounding culture also affects how Aussie reality TV shows are packaged, publicised and discussed. Gender norms seem fairly rigid, with hypermasculine “alpha” men often wreaking havoc and “traditional” values on display. Australia didn’t legalise same-sex marriage until 2017, but MAFS has barely featured any LGBTQ+ couples since then (there were none in season six) and 2021’s series has been criticised for its overwhelmingly white cast. The first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under was also overshadowed by racism allegations: one contestant had to apologise for previously performing in blackface, while another said sorry for having a large golliwog tattoo on their body (it has since been removed).

As in the UK, there is a conversation unfolding – albeit it more slowly – about producer manipulation and reality TV star welfare. Several contestants on MAFS have complained that the show portrayed them as villains, including series six’s Sam Ball, who claimed “it’s all scripted”. In 2018, the show’s experts were forced to drop the title of “psychologist” after a formal complaint from a former contestant. Last year, series seven’s Hayley Vernon compared filming the show to “torture”, prompting the production company behind MAFS, Big Brother and MasterChef Australia to recruit “wellness managers” to look after contestants. But there is still a long way to go. “At the moment, the rewards in terms of media coverage and viewer response far outweigh any ethical qualms,” Lenton says.

It feels as though British reality TV is in a transitional phase, with concerns around welfare still clashing with viewers’ need for mayhem. And, with some viewers turned off by contestants who look like Boohoo ambassadors in waiting, they are searching elsewhere for “authentic” drama. Australian reality TV may be brutal, but it is certainly bingeworthy.

Season eight of Married at First Sight Australia is broadcast Monday to Thursday at 7.30pm on E4

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