Issue 181,  published October 16, 2018

The Only Way is Pods

How real is reality, really, when it’s captured on a microphone, edited extensively, and then bundled with narration before being presented to the listener?

That’s the Big Question prompted by The Brights, a new British podcast launching this week that presents itself as part of a curious sounding genre: “structured reality.” Behind the production is a producer named Sarah Dillistone, who happens to be the brains behind big British reality TV hits The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, as well as host Lydia Bright, who found fame as a cast member on TOWIE. (That’s the fun acronym for The Only Way Is Essex by the way, in case that wasn’t clear to you.) The Brights will follow Lydia and her family over the course of 12 weekly episodes, which will supposedly reveal their everyday highs and lows. It kicks off on October 18.

“[Podcasting] just felt like a really exciting space to be telling this sort of story in this genre,” said Dillistone when we spoke over the phone recently. I had reached out to learn about how she is translating her reality television work into the seemingly more modest audio medium.

“When you go into a family house to film a scene, you have set up your cameras, the lights go on, you have to place people in the exact position for the shot, and then they talk about whatever story is going on,” she explained. “With the podcast, we walked in, popped some mics on, and that was it… It just felt so natural. I can just walk out the room, and life continues being recorded, without the pressures of a camera.”

In many ways, the traditional methods for making a storytelling podcast — identifying characters and scenes, collecting a lot of tape, shaping it into the desired narrative and then recording narration to go around it — are similar to the methods Dillistone said she uses to create her structured reality TV shows. The difference now that she’s working in audio, she emphasised, is how much less of an intervention the process of recording feels. With no cameras or yells of “action” going on, “the environment just doesn’t change,” she said. “I think it’s completely different to the TV that I’ve made.”

The Brights also strikes me as a straightforward commercial proposition. Lydia Bright has nearly a million followers on Instagram — where she does plenty of sponcon — and appears fairly regularly in the tabloid pages. I’m sure that Acast, the podcast platform which hosts and sells ads for the project, won’t be struggling all that hard to find sponsors who want to follow Bright into podcasting as well.

In the accompanying press release, The Brights is strongly pitching itself as the world’s first ever reality podcast. But I don’t think it can stake claim on being the first “reality podcast” per se. After all, CBC’s Sleepover, Gimlet’s The Habitat, and maybe even something like Megan Tan’s Millennial arguably falls along design lines that are somewhat similar to what we generally talk about when we talk about reality television.

Where the podcast is distinct or unusual, perhaps, is in its focus on harvesting the profile of existing reality stars and the transference of the familiar reality TV aesthetic. Rather than Lydia Bright taking the route of other social media stars and building a generic interview podcast or similar to augment her #brand, she’s actually still doing the thing she’s best known for: goofing around and yelling at her family in public, but in your headphones.