A lot happened in Australia in 1992. Sydney flooded. PM Paul Keating was dubbed the ‘Lizard of Oz’ for touching the Queen during a visit. The Mabo ruling recognised native title. Violent Femmes and Nirvana headlined the first Big Day Out. Strictly Ballroom saw love in the air. And our first reality TV show aired.
Called Sylvania Waters and filmed for six months in the Sydney suburb of the same name, the BBC production was a fly-on-the-wall look at an average Australian family. But, selectively edited, the Donaher household was shown as hard drinking, constantly fighting and generally obnoxious.
UK tabloid The Sun introduced the series – possibly the second reality show in the world – with a jab at the bottle blonde, tough-talking matriarch: “Meet Noeline. By tonight you’ll hate her too.”
Sylvania Waters was groundbreaking, and dominated water cooler conversations for months. The Donahers became both stars and anti-heroes. And 26 years on, the genre they kicked off is still fascinating for viewers and a massive part of the local TV industry.
Reality television – be it quests for love, musical fame, a designer bathroom or the perfect soufflé – usually means ratings gold in Australia. Cheaper to make than drama, it has become the ubiquitous fallback for networks.
But an extensive investigation by The New Daily has discovered the reality TV phenomenon offers at best a distorted reality.
Marathon shoots that exhaust contestants and crews. Manipulative edits that misrepresent the mindsets of entrants. Production decisions that push entrants out of comfort zones and into territory that threatens their well-being, and debilitating let-downs when brief brushes with fame come to an end.
Audiences love reality – last year, Sophie Monk’s final rose decision on The Bachelorette drew 2. 2 million viewers. So do advertisers. It’s just contestants who often emerge from the fires of TV camera and social media hell insisting it wasn’t what they signed up for. Some claim it’s ruined their lives and mental health.
“Below the glossy surface and the entertainment value is a giant vacuum which sucks the dignity out of people,” a TV source tells The New Daily.
“You’re sold a glamorous story but it’s a total con.
“Producers pretend they’re your best friend but you’re dumped once the drama is in the can.”
For 2011 MKR winner Bella Jakubiak – who took home the $250,000 purse with sister Sammy – the “reality is that people are put on to entertain, to engage”.
“The unreal thing is the expectation from viewers that people are put on there to cook or fall in love,” she tells The New Daily.
No matter its pitfalls or demands, reality TV has an almost-endless supply of contestants. Casting agents reports thousands of applications for every show they advertise. Some have more than 40,000 registrations per season.
“Suddenly with reality TV and more broadly the internet and Twitter, ordinary people have got the tools to lift up and produce culture,” says 2005 Big Brother contestant Tim Brunero, now an ABC journalist.
“It might be really bad pop culture … but [reality TV] has democratised celebrity and performance.”
Some people apply over and over until they strike pay dirt. Before The Bachelor in 2015, Sam Wood applied to be a trainer on The Biggest Loser. Married At First Sight has multiple reoffenders: Nasser Sultan appeared on Pawn Stars Australia (where he talked about a wife and kids). Sara Roza was on The Amazing Race. Davina Rankin first showed up on First Dates.
Double dipper Sam Cochrane “limped onto” Bachelor in Paradise this year for a holiday after last year’s The Bachelorette, “just to get a break from the reputation I’d somehow built,” he admits.
“I certainly wasn’t going over to look for love.”
The New Daily investigated how the shows are cast and made, and what happens when cameras stop rolling. The quest proved harder than anticipated, with production companies refusing to talk and contestants hanging up mid-interview. Other sources would only talk off the record.
Most former and current contestants have no interest in talking to the media unless they have something to promote, or are getting paid for it in a magazine exclusive deal arrangement.
Reality TV and its reality, it seems, is serious business.
The logical starting point was to track down the people who started it all – Noeline and Laurie Donaher.
These days, reality TV’s first villains – “still fairly happily together” – live a long way from Sylvania Waters and are caravanning in North Queensland when The New Daily calls.
Now in her 70s, Noeline is just back from the hairdresser and about to have her first drink of the day: “It’s a quarter past four. We’re on holiday.”
Still scarred by her reality TV experience, she has advice for people clamouring to be on shows.
“It’s never going to be a ticket to stardom. It’s going to be a ticket to a downfall. At the beginning a lot of people shunned us … it was a strain,” she says.
“Look, I’ll put you onto Laurie.”
Former V8 racing driver Laurie takes the phone. While saying he has a lot of “good memories” of Sylvania Waters, he also has a few choice criticisms of modern reality TV stars.
“I don’t think we acted at all. Maybe we should have. We just carried on as if it was our normal life,” he says.
“All these other reality TV shows these days, they’re all acting right from the start. It’s all an act. I think they think they’re movie stars or something.”
Would he turn back the clock and do it again? “I think my wife would probably say no. I might say yes.”
– Reported by Louise Talbot and Scott Ellis