Reality TV has long ceased to be a way of producing low-budget content to fill out the programming schedule. These days, it’s not only a programming staple but, in the case of several networks, constitutes the bulk of the programming lineup. Despite all the ridicule and criticism that accompanies the many subgenres of this type of television, audiences indulge and new shows are constantly being developed. But what is it about these shows that viewers find so captivating?
Though people tend to think of reality programming as having started with MTV’s The Real World back in the early 1990s, and the modern “reality boom” with Big Brother and Survivor at the turn of the 21st century, there have actually always been documentaries giving audiences insight into worlds they would normally never see. “Prank” shows filming unsuspecting participants through hidden cameras have been a popular format since at least the 1950s, not to mention “stunt” competition shows, where contestants have to perform silly or difficult challenges in order to advance or earn prizes, and talent competitions, where contestants hope to be “discovered” by singing, dancing or whatever hidden skill they might possess. There have also always been programs documenting the various aspects of our legal system.
In fact, the real birth of modern reality programming probably can be traced to the documentary show COPS. The show, which follows officers on patrol and is the longest continuously running unscripted program, was originally created during the television writers’ strike in the late 1980s. Without writers to create scripts for dramas and comedies, the networks had to find other resources for program content. Documentary programming, which did not require a formal script or professional actors, could be shot and edited quickly and inexpensively. Over the years we have seen this documentary format develop into many subgenres that include the various competition shows, makeover shows, and of course the “fly on the wall” shows that follow both celebrities through their daily lives and ordinary people who may have an unusual or glamorous lifestyle.
These are the shows, such as Bridezillas or Toddlers and Tiaras, that people tend to think of when they hear the term “reality TV.” They are also the programs, the “guilty pleasures,” that tend to have the highest ratings. One reason for this, postulates Tierney Sneed of USNews.com, is that many of these shows are ultimately about families, which is the aspect that audiences identify with most. Be they the Kardashians, the Sister Wives, or the self-proclaimed rednecks from Duck Dynasty, the concept of family and the relationship dynamics within that social group are universally relatable. It’s a through-line concept that easily extends to non-blood-related social groups as well, such as The Real Housewives or Jersey Shore, and viewers can easily draw parallels in their own lives.
The downside to this sort of identification and relatablility, as sociologists have observed, is that there is also a marked increase in affinity with the superficial, which some experts believe leads to issues with self-esteem and body image. The proliferation of reality programming has also left very little to the imagination when it comes to subject matter. There are reality shows on just about every conceivable topic, from buying a new home to ghost hunting, from crab fishing off the coast of Alaska to parking meter attendants, from “wife swapping” to “preachers’ daughters.” No topic, it seems, is out of bounds for modern broadcasting, particularly when it comes to the sort of outrageous behavior that tends to attract viewers like a bad car crash on a major highway. Making a public spectacle of oneself isn’t exactly new, but being able to do so instantly and on a worldwide level is, and that has sociologists concerned.
Still, it’s difficult to say whether this sort of breakdown in social boundaries can be directly attributed to the abundance of unscripted programming or the simple fact that we are living in the era of instant messaging and instant gratification, where our private lives are placed voluntarily on public display, through various online means, out of the basic human desire for connection, acknowledgement, or approval. This, more than anything, may be the reason people can’t seem to get enough reality programming. These kinds of shows are, in some ways, just superinflated social media posts. To the average target viewer, this kind of frivolity in programming makes it appear that anyone with something to say can have their own TV show, and that’s appealing too.
Producers of reality programming are often blamed for exploiting and even exacerbating this craving for attention that appears to have infected modern culture. They are accused of perpetuating cliché by “not casting whole, complete people” and instead looking for “types.” This is certainly true to an extent, but what detractors need to remember is that these shows have no formal script or actors to rely on to tell a story. What they do have is a concept and a setting and very little else to generate a story that viewers will want to follow on a weekly basis. Producers are casting for ways individuals can fit into a relationship dynamic with others in the group, as opposed to the more traditional “character” role, because those relationship dynamics are the story. And there is no shortage of people who would do anything to be on television, no matter how ill-mannered or socially inept they might be.
There are some positives of the unscripted format as well. A&E’s Hoarders has brought to greater public awareness the very deep psychoses behind such behaviour. Similar to the same network’s Intervention, the producers pay not only for cleanup of the home, but also six months of counseling. There are also some shows that inspire people to go out and do things they didn’t think were possible: losing large amounts of weight or taking on a career they never thought they could have.
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