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The Reality of Reality TV

I finally caught up with this year’s Emmy’s and was rather disappointed in the aftermath of this whole “Reality” thing. Why do we keep calling this genre reality when it’s really a faux–reality. These shows are a pretend real, meaning that what we, the audience, are watching is not what our perceived reality is. Our reality is not stranded on a beach doing challenges, living in a house that costs more than what most of us will make in a lifetime, ultimately vying for one million dollars or other prizes. Our reality, however, is noticing the way that these interactions on these shows pertain to our lives. That is the reality of TV. If so, then why are we so enamored with it? Why do we watch week in, week out to see who’s getting voted off American Idol?

We all manipulate, deceive, and con people. Maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but in many ways we do. We use rhetoric, the art of persuasion, all the time and this is a semiological reason why people love to watch these shows. We see ourselves. The audience learns new, more subtle (sometimes not so subtle) ways of connivery by watching these shows.

One could argue that ‘reality’ shows have been around since the beginning of television. Game shows are a type of reality show: they have real people, and no script. But there is/was no interaction from the guests. There are no dynamics, other than the banter between guest and host (see: Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy!, etc.). Today’s reality shows incorporate the game aspect (You could win a million dollars) with the notion of the audience being able to peek into the lives of ordinary people (who just so happened to be CAST FOR THE SHOW!!!).

America, as a society, is voyeuristic. We love to watch. We come across an accident on the highway and feel compelled to see the damage. We need to know what is going on at all times and these ‘reality’ shows give us a glimpse of this, while at the same time making us feel more confident in our seemingly pathetic lives. Remember “Candid Camera”? America was able to spy on its friends and family, and thus, created a ‘reality’ genre (only it would take several decades before it was coined).

‘Reality’ television has gained popularity (not only with the public, but with the network brass, as well) due to certain factors. Let’s start with the networks love of ‘reality’ TV. It is cheap. The overhead is significantly lower than a drama, sit-com, dramedy, movie of the week, etc. True, there is usually a nice cash reward at the end of the show, but what’s a million dollars when you save tens of millions dollars over the course of a season or multiple seasons. Also, set design is relatively cheap. Houses are already built, islands are already formed, basic sets like a couple of chairs and some funky lighting takes the place of apartments, living rooms, kitchens, hospitals, courts, precincts. To me, the biggest problem is that there is no slowing of this drama. Last year’s strike didn’t help the cause of original programming and only inflated reality TV’s importance…hence this year’s new Emmy Award for Best Reality TV Show Host.

Another major reason why ‘reality’ television has soared is because of us: the masses. The highest rated shows on television, over the past 8 years, have been reality shows. More people participate in reality shows, whether through call-in voting or simply watching, than they do in electing officials to run our town, state, and country.

As discussed before, we are a voyeuristic society. Television viewers enjoy watching other people, especially real people, and this genre allows the audience to fulfill a fantasy that cannot happen with a sitcom or drama. We can fantasize while watching Kate on “Lost”, but we feel safe because we’ve pushed that button behind our ear that triggers the ‘make-believe world,’ as my dad explained to me when I was younger.

However, with reality TV, we can actually imagine ourselves sitting on the Deal or No Deal set. We actively talk to the television more so with these reality shows than with fictionalized programming (which is not to say, of course, that we spend a good time yelling at the TV screen during Heroes or How I Met Your Mother). To me, the biggest problem is that there is no slowing of this drama.

The third, and final factor to ‘reality’ television’s popularity is at the more subtle level: the relationship/communication functions of these shows. With sitcom and drama, we are able to see through the fine comb of society and understand the point of the show (well, maybe not. “All In The Family” was supposed to anger people, instead, it made them laugh). In all of these reality shows, there are major lessons in communication, and this is why ‘reality’ television is named. The most prevalent of these messages are the interpersonal relationships formed between the personalities. In the game show arena of these shows (as they are still at the root, just a game show) contestants are manipulated and influenced by the others; just like real life. The audience sees the back stabbing and we associate these actions, behaviors, and responses to what we do (or would do). Then, the audience is able to relate to the contestants; rooting for one and not the other, actively getting involved with the television show (talking to TV set, buying merchandise, voting etc.).

One of the criticisms of ‘reality’ television is that these programs create the opportunity for us to fantasize about how we would act under similar circumstances. They reflect a society in which people have become more interested in voyeurism and fantasy than in actually doing something in their lives.

The greatest danger of these shows is that they make instant heroes out of individuals who are least worthy of hero worship. They teach that instant celebrity is better than the anonymity of everyday life, ‘sex’ works, and ‘success’ is more important than character. ‘Reality’ television creates the media personality (see: The Bachelor, winners of Survivor and of Big Brother). These people are not actors, not ‘stars’, yet they are famous (ironically, because we are such a voyeuristic society, we are also a forgetful society. Can you name winners and runner ups of most, if not all of these shows?).

Unfortunately, these shows are an accurate portrayal of human nature in contemporary society. These shows could not have happened at any time, other than the late 1990’s. It is in our nature to use oneself and others for personal gain. It is overcoming human nature that gives rise to character, morality, civility, and pro-social behavior. However, after watching the most horrific reality-based television in our lives on that Tuesday in September 2001, there hasn’t been a backlash against reality programming. In fact, it’s thrived. We’ve gone from the days of MTV’s Real World to The Biggest Loser. The notion of interpersonal dynamic is still what draws and compels us, or is it that we secretly need to prove that we’re smarter than a fifth grader?

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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