"What about giving us a real version of Australian history?": Identity, ethics, and historical understanding in reality history TV

Michelle Arrow*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In the last few years, Australia's colonial history has become bitterly contested terrain, picked over in public in a series of debates known as the "history wars."1 These debates have centered on conflicting interpretations of indigenous-European history and the violence of colonization and have been fought not just between academics, but also among politicians and neoconservative newspaper commentators. Such furious debate framed the production and reception of Australia's first forays into reality history TV in 2005: The Colony, which screened on the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in January,2 and Outback House, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in midyear. All reality history TV series reflect and shape popular ideas about the meaning of the past, and they gain added resonance when that past is a deeply contested one. Reality history TV dramatizes (even exaggerates) an essential historical problem-namely, the impossibility of ever re-creating the past in the present, to know what "really" happened. Reality history can only show us what twenty-first-century citizens choose to make of the past. For this reason, reality history offers a limited means of learning about the past: it focuses on the material conditions of the past at the expense of politics; it gazes at the past through the prism of personal relationships and conflict, and it reproduces, rather than challenges, popular social memory of the past. Yet reality history can offer interesting possibilities for understanding the significance of the past. It confronts the ways ordinary people in the present make sense of the past-indeed, how they understand their past-in more explicit ways than other kinds of television history and even some written histories. Both The Colony and Outback House promised that participants and viewers would "step back in time" to different periods of Australia's colonial history. Did these programs offer a "real version of Australian history"? Or did they merely present a "whitewashed version," as the angry viewer quoted above alleged? This essay will explore the possibilities and limitations of reality TV as a form of history, with particular attention to issues of national and personal identity, empathy, and ethics.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe tube has spoken
Subtitle of host publicationReality TV & history
EditorsJulie Anne Taddeo, Ken Dvorak
Place of PublicationLexington, Ky
PublisherThe University Press of Kentucky
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9780813129419, 9780813139388
ISBN (Print)9780813125534, 9780813133881
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2009


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