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Struggle Street: How the “Scum Zoo” of Struggle Street Became a Ratings Smash

Finlay McDonald looks at the emerging international television phenomenon known as ‘poverty porn’, and wonders how long we’ll have to wait for a New Zealand version.

Sydney’s sprawling west contains some of the best-named suburbs known to humankind: Blacktown, Punchbowl and, my firm favourite, Rooty Hill. Each would make a fine title for a gritty drama, the last one probably involving teenagers and a range of V8 panel vans.

But in fact it is the rather less enticingly named Mt Druitt (albeit part of greater Blacktown) that has achieved TV notoriety first, as the real-life setting for Australian reality series Struggle Street. It has become the biggest ever hit for public broadcaster SBS, with its independent production company now in a bidding war with the bigger, richer commercial networks for a second series. The spectacle of TV executives throwing wads of cash at a programme about modern poverty more or less sums up the various dynamics of this latest entertainment frontier.

The genre is ripped from a British prototype called Benefits Street, a Channel 4 series filmed in Birmingham that also received the requisite deluge of formal complaints to ensure a ratings bonanza. As the brilliant Charlie Brooker put it in the Guardian, “the show generated many furious tweets, but then so does everything.” The real problem, Brooker observed, was the show’s title – “cynically chosen to push buttons, and that ploy has worked.”

The first New Zealand saw of Struggle Street was a recent news item about the mayor of Blacktown’s outrage at what he called “poverty porn”. He instructed his fleet of rubbish trucks to perform a symbolic drive-by of the SBS headquarters, where the more usual struggle is with margin-of-error ratings in a primetime culture where Masterchef and The Block count as sophisticated viewing. To its credit, SBS has hit back in kind, threatening to sue the Blacktown mayor, and standing by their show as a truthful representation of a phenomenon many Australians would prefer to ignore.

Which might be true, if you mean most people don’t want to spend too many hours actually hanging out in the mean backyards and loveless living rooms of the kind of people who would rather break down a locked door than go without a cone before breakfast. But offered the chance to relax on their own couches like passive anthropologists observing the hunting, gathering and mating habits of the underclass, it seems many ordinary Aussies are more than happy to wallow in vicarious lower socio-economic reality.

And yet, as so many chin-strokers have asked already, what is reality in reality? No sooner had SBS faced down the Blacktown garbos than one of the show’s hapless participants claimed that an audible fart used in a promo had been dubbed in. It was an outrage! Given the coverage given Poppy’s famous (and also possibly post-synced) eruption on The Bachelor“the fart that stopped a nation” according to one story – it’s surely high time someone seriously addressed the role of flatulence in contemporary entertainment. But if you can’t trust a fart in a reality show, what can you trust?

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The point of programmes such as Struggle Street is that they supposedly take the viewer direct to the source, without the filter of a normal news or current affairs item. No pompous reporter in expensive clothes strolling down some vile back alley spouting platitudes about the complex causes of poverty – just the unmediated squalor and misbehaviour for us to judge and contextualise. Done well, there’s a certain purity to the format, free from the inherent condescension and suspicion that the audience is too stupid to decode the content for themselves.

It’s one reason I’ve long suspected that reality fly-on-the-wall television is gradually displacing conventional current affairs (apart from the budgetary advantages of just pointing a camera and not paying for senior journalists, of course). Back in the golden age of long-form TV journalism we would be treated to regular investigations of all manner of social ills, from child abuse to alcoholism to unemployment to whatever health epidemic was currently vexing the middle classes.

With Sunday and 3D only occasionally veering into such worthy territory, it’s left to the likes of Police Ten 7, Road Cops, Dog Patrol, Neighbours At War and Motorway Patrol – as well as the dozens of foreign formats these shows ape – to provide a glimpse into the lives of the downtrodden, deranged, angry, eccentric, drunk and disorderly who live (and sleep, fight, party and vomit) on all the struggle streets of every land.

Yes, there is always the risk that such a show will be seen, as was Benefits Street in the UK, as a “scum zoo” (now there’s a title). But there are people who hate Campbell Live going on about Christchurch so much, so you just have to accept there will always be a percentage of viewers with terminal jaundice.

Right now I’ll warrant there is some poor location scout tramping the pylon-infested back streets of west or south Auckland looking for the ideal local setting, although finding the right sponsor might prove slightly more difficult. The producers could go back to McGehan Close, of course, the supposed “street of shame” John Key used in 2007 to illustrate the underclass problem. Except that its credentials are a little let down by it being in otherwise salubrious Mt Albert. Either way, there will be no shortage of contenders for New Zealand’s avenue of awfulness.

If we can get past the inevitably tabloid title it might even be good. Bludgers Boulevard, anyone?

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