Showcase Post II – Reality TV, Now a Fact

As a global phenomenon, the manifestation of reality TV has drawn much investigation into its development, structure, and social influence. Many journalism scholars believe that the rise of reality TV create a low point in TV cultures, in which the factual and civil tradition, and the quality behind quality drama is compromised, and a highly marketable, low in value genre dominates. Many question the ethics of reality TV and its social value in the ‘education’ of its audience. The reality TV format plays on voyeurism – a natural human tendency. Television provides us with the opportunity to not only peek into other people’s lives, but also doing so in private without any fellow partners in crime as one would experience in an erotic cinema (Thompson, 2001).

The comparison is made between reality TV and traditional documentaries. The primary appeal of reality TV show is its claimed ‘authenticity’ in comparison to scripted television drama. However, many question the idea of ‘realism’ behind reality TV shows. Reality TV shows are often influenced by the easily detectable tendency to edit and present the content showcasing dramatic elements and controversy in order to capture its audience. This is seen by some researchers as deception and a form of cheating. Beck et al. argue that in comparison to traditional documentaries, reality TV ‘prioritise entertainment over social commentary’, and borrow from the structural and dramaturgical elements of soap opera, with a shifted focus on the personality of its characters using short narrative sequences and other techniques such as dramatic soundtracks, intersecting plot lines, etc (Bruzzi & Kilborn, cited in Beck et al, 2012).

John Corner (cited in Ouellette, 2010), also 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. Corner argues that traditional ‘factual’ TV provides the function of ‘civic training’. He envisions the television medium as an instrument of national education through the creation of a public sphere high in legitimacy. 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).
The engagement between reality TV and its audience is hence less of a ‘sender-receiver’ module constructed by traditional ‘factual’ public broadcasting. With the commercial tag of ‘authenticity’ comes an active consumer response of critical review. 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).

In a qualitative research into college student’s consumption pattern of reality TV, Lundy L.K. et al. (2008) discover that despite 76.4% of participants acknowledging they watch reality program on a regular basis, the response to the genre suggests the audience remains critical towards the realism of the content. Furthermore, a distinction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reality shows is made with a reasoned investigation of its content, presentation, instead of pure entertainment value.

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.
It is apparent, then, that reality TV has an active role in constructing the modern public sphere, in a different manner from traditional national broadcasting. Reality shows strengthen public interest through their interactivity with the audience, through embedded platforms such as the voting and evicting system seen on Big Brother, as well as the very dedicated online and social media discussion groups (Beck et al, 2012). Graham & Hajru (2011) argue that internet public sphere, with a much higher participatory value, provides reality TV with the space to host discussions that have a political dimension. It constitutes the public sphere and cannot be overlooked. They looked at political discussion in Big Brother UK. Through the daily discussions which Thompson describes as ‘people sitting around’ (pp.21, 2001), many ‘lifestyle, image and identity’ discussion invoked political debates. These debates further flourish in its fan community on the internet, extending to areas such as George Galloway’s politics, the judical/legal system, gender and sexuality, and even reality TV itself. The vast range of discussion is constituted by 1176 post on the forum. Not every single post would provide a national uniformed ‘civic training’ text, but it is through the development of these discussions that a bottom-up public sphere is created.

Looking at the criticism towards reality TV and the debate over the kind of role it plays in constructing a new public sphere, I can not help but feel that reality TV is a shiny new product of this postmodern age, in which validation is sought after through further examination and questioning, instead of being provided by an authoritative, ‘factual’ figure. The value of reality TV comes from its audience, as we live in an age in which no one has the power to tell us what eventually is seriously, ‘real’.


Beck, D., Hellmueller, L.C. & Aeschbacher, N. 2012, “Factual Entertainment and Reality TV”, Communication Research Trends, vol.31 (2012), no.2 pp.4-27, via EBSCOhost

Graham, T & Harju, A 2011, “Reality TV as a trigger of everyday political talk in the net-based public sphere”, European Journal of Communication, 26(1) pp.18-32, via SAGE Journals

Lundy, L.K., Ruth A.M. & Park, T.D. 2008, “Simply Irresistable: Reality TV Consumption Patterns”, Communication Quarterly, vol.56, no.2, May 2008, pp.208-225, via EBSCOhost

Thompson, R 2001, “Reality and the Future of Television”, Television Quarterly, issue.31, no.4, pp.20-25, via EBSCOhost

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, 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,  via EBSCOhost


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