Does ‘Reality’ Matter?

The significant rise of reality television in the recent broadcasting landscape has invoked many observations into what makes up for its success. However many scholars and commentators also explicitly criticise reality as a genre of low cultural value. Nevertheless, reality TV as a popular format, reinvents the TV media with many of its distinct features.


Reality TV is defined by Hill (2005) as an unscripted melodramatic format in which ordinary people are featured instead of professional actors, usually incorporating ‘humorous’ real-life events or prize-winning contests. It automatically addresses itself as ‘authentic’ in comparison to scripted drama. It also creates the ‘impression’ of being so through many aspects such as voyeurism and participation.


Many of these features were also seen as primary distinctions between documentaries and dramas. However, reality TV and documentaries are treated with significantly different attitudes. It seems like reality TV’s ‘liveness’ and ‘realism’ is viewed with a much higher level of skepticism. In Laurie Ouellette’s essay ‘Reality TV Gives Back: on the Civic Functions of Reality Entertainment’ these two formats are compared and their relations to ‘reality’ through ‘unscripting’ further examined.


John Corner (cited in Ouellette), argues that traditional TV such as the documentary format carries the function of ‘civic training’, whilst reality TV, although borrowing the ‘factual’ setup of documentaries, is skewed towards entertainment and gaming values to engage a market. Like soap opera, it is considered of low value and aesthetics.


John’s argument can be validated by observing the recent development of reality TV. Corner points out that national public service stations such as BBC and PBS through many of their earlier ‘factual programming created content that were ‘high in civic legitimacy but low in exchange value’ (Corner, pp.52). Such content, however, has undergone a decline resulted from ‘market liberalisation, deregulation, digital technologies, and the post welfare impetus to reform and downsize the public sector in general (Born, pp102, quoted in Ouellette). Reality TV, on the other hand, is a product of this social development. Many scholars have examined the link between the new cultural and political landscape and the growth of reality TV. Fetveit (1999, quoted in Papacharissi & Mendelson) argues that reality TV symbolises the TV audience’s longing for ‘a sense of contact with the real’ (pp.798), in a postmodern era that is ‘post-photographic, digitalised and comic-book-like’ (pp.326, Jagodozinki, quoted in Papacharissi & Mendelson).


These arguments suggest that reality TV indeed provides a sense of ‘realism’ that engages and therefore succeeds in marketing. However, this is not the only attribute that led to reality TV’s success. Reality TV has gained a social role in our contemporary cultural landscape with its deeper integration with our cultural experiences.


Ouellette argues that although the changing face of society has resulted in a decline of traditionally ‘educational’ and ‘journalistic’ style documentaries offered by public stations, the ‘civic potential’ of the medium is in fact, carried through to the reality format. Ouellette points out that although reality TV is constantly engaging its audience for a commercially skewed purpose, many programs indeed ‘address TV viewers as subjects of capacity who exercise freedom and civic agency within (not against) entertainment and consumer culture’ (pp.68). If ‘educational’ and ‘factual’ programming provided by traditional TV engages the audience by ‘teaching’ them what is right, reality TV is like the social experience outside the classroom in which the knowledge is obtained through active consideration, and subject to different results. Ouellette points out that although the uniformed ‘public oversight’ does not exist in reality television, reality programs still provides an active role in providing civic training.


Another important aspect of reality TV that makes up for its identity is its disruption to the idea of ‘person on the screen’ and ‘celebrity’. Reality TV incorporates the participatory culture which has seen its unique success outside a traditionally Hollywood setup. Shows such as ‘… Idols’ have gained success around the world each with an audience that is highly ‘local’. This brings back our discussions earlier in the semester about television’s role in constructing a public identity. Aswin Punathambekar looks at the example of Amit Paul, the northeastern Indian Indian Idol winner whose support came from the divided groups of Khas, Jaintia, and Garo tribes, and argues that reality TV, through its deep roots in participatory culture, effectively creates a strong public sphere which has lasting social impact.


Reality TV may not be always real. Some conservative scholars argue that the format generates ‘edited”marketable’ illusions that are simply market driven, therefore is misleading and harmful to the public sphere traditional ‘national’ TV has created. However, it is important to note that the reading of reality TV among its audience is different from the reading of traditional ‘factual’ TV, as the audience are often aware of ‘the artificiality of the whole experience, but incorporated it to their mechanisms for deriving pleasure from this media genre’ (Jones, cited in Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007). Furthermore, the good-old ‘factual’ TV does indeed create a more ‘uniformed’ cultural identification through an official, authoritative voice, but what if some of it was, just like some reality TV, wrong? The audience are already arguing whether a reality scene is ‘real’, however in the old days many ‘facts’ were left unchallenged.



Hill, A 2004, Reality TV:  audiences and popular factual television. Routledge, London, UK

Ouellette, L 2010, Reality TV Gives Back: On the Civic Functions of Reality Entertainment, Journal of Popular Film & Television, Summer 2010, vol.38, issue.2, pp.66-71, Communication & Mass Media Complete via EBSCOhost

Z. Papacharissi & A.L. Mendelson, 2007 An Exploratory Study of Reality Appeal: Uses and Gratifications of Reality TV Shows, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2007, vol.51 issue.2, pp. 355-37, Communication & Mass Media Complete via EBSCOhost

Punathambekar, Aswin. Reality TV and Participatory Culture in India, Popular Communication, Oct-Dec 2010, vol.8, issue.4, p241-255, Communication & Mass Media Complete via EBSCOhost



3 Responses to “Does ‘Reality’ Matter?”

  1. The idea of ‘realism’ in Reality Television is difficult to determine. With so many different forms of manipulation corrupting the notion of liveness across so many different sub-genres within Reality Television there can be no pure form of realism. Even within a live based Reality TV show the environment is manipulated to serve a certain purpose and the players within that environment act accordingly, thus, it is never ‘truly’ real. One of the first forms of Reality Television ‘Cops’ was manipulated through editing and more recent shows go as far as using actors mixed in players so that they are always in control of the outcome of the show. In a genre where nothing is ‘truly’ spontaneous, how can anything be ‘truly’ real?

    Russell Clark

  2. “Reality TV is defined by Hill (2005) as an unscripted melodramatic format -”
    Not gonna lie that I watched the whole 6 seasons of the title, but don’t you feel some episodes a bit scripted at later seasons? (Watched the final episode of season 6, dunno why but chances are I was stoned) The whole drama aspects of the show is fine and what not but the sense of familiarity of the everyday that the genre is supposed to carry seems diminished progressively.

    “Another important aspect of reality TV that makes up for its identity is its disruption to the idea of ‘person on the screen’ and ‘celebrity’.”. I may not get the right idea here but does this mean Reality TV’s identity being formed by the ‘people on screen’? So the celebrity is created FOR the genre or it works both ways?

    Nevertheless, great post regarding the genre. =)


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