We Brits love our two minute hates, and going by the bile trickling down Twitter this evening Channel 4's Benefits Street has cornered that market. So a few points.
This programme, despite its obvious opportunism, was conceived and produced by metropolitan elite-types. And metropolitan I, of course, mean London. In typical path-to-hell fashion perhaps the filmmakers genuinely believe they're helping the people involved in this show. There's an element of the working class exotic about it, a whiff of the northern Other (despite Birmingham not being 'the north'). It smacks of nice well spoken metro types swooping down and helping the good people of Benefits Street to help themselves.
A second factor worth considering is the political economy of celebrity itself. Reality shows, newspapers, gossip rags, fan forums, they all have an insatiable appetite for new Z-listers that can tour its circuit for a few months, or a couple of years. Celebrity has long been dissociated from talent. Will we see White Dee in the jungle? Who will do Big Brother next year? Which resident will be first to have their sex life splashed in a Sunday paper? I doubt the producers set down in their planning meeting with this in mind, but all reality TV plugs into this circuit of fleeting fame.
Lastly, Benefits Street says something interesting about the distance travelled by Channel 4. Up until the last decade C4 was always the daring channel. It broke the mold with The Word, Big Breakfast, Brookside and, of course, Big Brother. It competed with BBC2 as the go-to place for alternative comedy in the 80s and 90s, and was - for a time - hated more by the Daily Mail than dear old Auntie. It had a winning formula of churning out programming that was challenging but in some way controversial. Sex usually did the trick and as the press worked themselves up into a hypocritical lather, the audiences - crucially the young(ish), hip, taste-making audiences - tuned in. Now the reverse is true. Like The Mail it realises that the way to reach the millions who wouldn't normally touch reality TV product is to produce something so distasteful, something that confirms every single benefit myth pumped out by the press. To get the numbers in C4 deliberately went out of their way to offend an audience. And it worked. How many outraged lefties watched tonight's episode? How many acres and column inches of free publicity has this show in parts normally resistant to reality telly?