Reality TV

Reality TV is an ever-expanding increasingly popular genre on television today, largely thanks to the success of Big Brother. The reality TV category is broad, including infotainment, surveillance reality, fly-on-the-wall docu-soap, reality game, and reality talent formats just to name a few. This wave of reality TV programs has been accompanied by “a discernible intensification of the histrionic commentaries in magazines, tabloids and web-sites with which ‘reality’ forms are now inter-dependent” (Piper, 2006). The publicity and widespread media coverage of such programs creates celebrities, a top priority of today’s TV programs. Shows such as X Factor and Australian Idol hope to find homegrown talent and produce international super stars, and even shows like Big Brother and Master Chef are concerned with producing local celebrities who will continue to support both the network brand, and the programs image.  

In television discourse ‘reality TV’ often appears in quotation marks, a technique to make us question the shows contested claim to be ‘real’. TV critics Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn consider reality TV’s relationship to the ‘real’ in their book Understanding Reality Television, where they argue that “early attempts to define reality TV emphasized the importance of a focus on ‘real life’ and ‘real people’ as the crucial criteria…yet the more recent proliferation of reality TV has witnessed a move away from an attempt to ‘capture’ a ‘life lived’ to the televisual arenas of formatted environments in which the more traditional observational rhetoric of documentary jostles for space with the discourses of display and performance” (Holmes & Jermyn, 2004 pp.5).

Traditional reality TV programs fell into the observational documentary category, attempting to convey a non-contrived, as reflective of real life events as possible. Watching excerpts from the hugely popular British series 7 Up, provided an interesting insight into the earlier days of reality TV. Whilst the program was obviously still designed, structured and edited, this was minimal compared to today’s reality programs. The shows idea of covering lives in time, with a new series airing every seven years, allowed for an extraordinary development of, and depth of perspective of ‘the self’ as viewers follow these ordinary people’s lives as they grow up.

In recent decades there has been a shift away from this more traditional observational documentary to docusoap formats. A key element of reality television is ‘the self’ and how this is constructed and transformed throughout a program. In this sense some reality television can be seen as a drama performance, with individuals knowing they are on camera, and must convey themselves in a particular way, often seemingly contrived. The British show Made in Chelsea, about the lives of London’s young and wealthy,is a perfect example of this contrived reality. There has been no denying from the production team and cast members that Made in Chelsea is a ‘scripted reality’. As a viewer this is obvious, and sometimes results in cringe worthy awkward moments where we feel the conversation seems unnatural and forced. However this is all done with the producer’s idea of which aspect of ‘the self’ of each participant they wish to portray. As a viewer you must move beyond the view ‘oh but its not really reality’ and instead look at how what works and appeals to the audience and why. As a viewer you have to wonder if Caggie and Spencer’s ‘on again off again, will they ever hook up’ thing they have going is played up and prolonged to create appealing television viewing, not because that’s actually how they feel about each other. In saying this though, this continual storyline with lingering hope they might get together is perhaps what keeps people hooked on the show and coming back for more.

A key feature of many reality TV programs that appeals to audiences is the idea of observing ‘ordinary people’. In the book Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, John Corner looks at Big Brother and its portray of real people and real behavior, asserting “such observation finds its grounding reference, and a large part of its interest and pleasure in the real characteristics of real people”  (Corner, 2009 pp.44). This isn’t to say Big Brother isn’t contrived, because to an extent it is, by the very setting of the Big Brother House, a ‘world’ is created for participants to live in, outside of their normal realities.

Another key feature of reality television is its relationship with audience participation. Game shows such as Big Brother, Australian Idol and Biggest Loser allow viewers to vote for their favourite participants. This allows viewers to have an influence on the direction of these shows and how they will eventually unfold. This idea of viewer participation has very much coincided with the emergence of technologies that have allowed for online participation as well, where viewers can follow programs 24 hours a day.

Reality TV has seen a trade it format and program ideas globally, with American ideas for shows often sold to Asian networks. In her book Reality TV: Audiences and popular factual television, Annette Hill argues that “the success of European versions of reality formats illustrates reality TV’s strong performance within the global television sphere” (Hill, 2005 pp.25). This isn’t to say its always America coming up with the ideas, take Iron Chef, this Japanese show was recreated in America, and the idea for popular program Survivor began in Sweden. This global exchange in formatting just goes to show how successful a genre reality TV has been, particularly since the late 1990s.


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