Your mom may have once told you that watching TV would rot your brain, but she probably never imagined the likes of Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. If the TV shows you watched as a kid would rot your brain, today’s reality TV would surely turn it to complete sludge—right? Maybe not. Some studies have agreed that while reality TV might not exactly win you a MENSA card, it might not be as drool-inducing as your mom feared. In fact, you might be surprised at the type of people who count reality TV among their favorites.
At first glance, most reality shows target a young audience. After all, who cares about teen moms more than teens? But a younger demographic isn’t the only one taking in reality TV: While 68 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds give reality TV a huge thumbs up, 32 percent of adults 65 and up said the same1—and you thought they were all watching Matlock reruns. Of course, while reality TV appeals to all ages; it’s the type of reality TV that draws the line in the demographic sand. Younger viewers are happy to watch lifestyle reality TV shows, dishing about Kim’s latest ugly crying session or bad girls throwing drinks at each other. Older adults seem to prefer competition-based reality shows—Survivor, anyone?
Of course, TV networks know how to pander to an audience to bring in viewers and advertising top dollars. Take the show Ice Road Truckers and guess what you think the demographic would be. If you chose 16-year-old girls, it’s time to head back to Marketing 101. A manly-man show like Ice Road Truckers brings in a high middle-aged man demographic and tons of commercials for booze, razors, and sporting equipment. Makes sense, right?
When it comes to all things shallow, reality TV is also responsible for another cultural phenomenon. When polled, 78 percent of patients who went under the knife for cosmetic surgery admitted that reality TV was an influence to their decision. Hey, if all of the Real Housewives can get a nip and tuck, why not the rest of the housewives across America?
So the real question is then, who is really watching reality TV? It doesn’t matter if you’re top dog at a law firm or you work weekends at a Wal-Mart, reality TV manages to hit just about every salary bracket, educational level, and gender. Hello, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo beat the Republican National Convention in ratings in 2012. Either all of Honey Boo-Boo fans are Democrats or her chicken-fried antics are more interesting than conservative politics.
In an article published in Psychology Today, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.2 points out that reality TV might even have a few benefits. She notes that watching shows where someone makes a goal, The Biggest Loser for example, might help the viewers at home follow the lead of making and keeping their own goals. Don’t fire up the Storage Wars marathon just yet though. Another study published in Media Psychology shows that TV could actually make you dumber or at least less likely to perform well on a test of knowledge taken directly after your favorite reality show. Too bad there aren’t more reality shows about studying to get into college or climbing the corporate ladder sans Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Basketball Wives isn’t going to make you any smarter.
A peek into the minds of the people watching reality shows would be like asking to read the minds of nearly the entire population of America. With the number of reality shows jumping from four in 2000 to 320 in 2010, what type of person is tuning in? The answer: Every type.