What are some of the key defining features of ‘reality tv’ as a television genre?
Reality TV is a genre that has been perplexing many for years. Academics studying the genre seem to take both positive and negative views.
Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray, in their introductory chapter of book Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, suggest the genre primarily exists for commercial gain, defining reality TV as “… an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real.” (2009, p. 3) In this view, reality TV is less about communicating the real, but communicating a representation there of.
This definition seems to focus on the types of programs covered by the broad umbrella of ‘reality TV’ that are often seen as ‘trashy,’ and lacking in any kind of quality. On the other hand, in his paper American Idolatry: Celebrity, Commodity, and Reality Television, Christopher Bell acknowledges the quality of some programs within the genre, defining it as “… a widely-encompassing, generic term that includes many programs which are both intellectually stimulating and aesthetically challenging.” (2009, p. 289)
The problem with defining the genre of reality tv and its key features, is that, like many genres, it consists of many “sub-genres”, or smaller clusters of style and technique that each approach the genre in different ways. Ouellette and Murray suggest reality TV consists of the dating program, makeover program, docusoap, popular talent contest, charity program, lifestyle games that “fuse conventions of gaming with expert guidance,” (2009, p. 5) and more. When considering the large amount of “sub-genres” or formats, it is not surprising there is a large amount of hesitance when one attempts to define the genre with any certainty.
Perhaps, then, the key to its definition lies not in its content, but in the shared techniques each of these sub-genres use: the claim to represent reality. Reality TV, though, differs in its approach to representing reality compared to more factually based news programs; as Ouellette and Murray suggest,
“What ties together all the various formats of the reality TV genre is their professed abilities to more fully provide viewers an unmediated, voyeuristic, and yet often playful look into what might be called the “entertaining real.”
(2009, p. 5)
Whereas news presents factual information for the purposes of public service, reality TV is distinctly different in that its purposes are primarily to entertain. Authenticity becomes questionable considering this, though it is doubtful audiences watch most reality TV programs to gather accurate information, not to be entertained. Reality TV promises access to nonscripted “real” people in all sorts of situations, and this, it seems, is perhaps the biggest factor in appealing to audiences.
In 2008, Fox premiered a reality TV show aptly named The Moment of Truth. It had a total of 23 episodes, with 5 going unaired. The show features one sole contestant at any time. Before the show, this contestant is asked a series of 50 questions whilst a polygraph exam is conducted. With no knowledge of the results, the contestant is asked 21 of these in front of a live audience, including friends and family, each progressively increasing in difficulty and personal nature. A truthful answer sees the contestant progress towards the jackpot of $500, 000, whereas an untruthful answer results in elimination.
The Moment of Truth can be seen as an example of commercial reality TV. Its purpose is not to inform, but to entertain; to expose secrets of the contestant; to allow the audience to witness the disintegration of the contestants’ relationships (which is a common result). Furthermore, The Moment of Truth, and shows like it, often cause and provoke outrage within the wider community. Their goal is not to blend, not to simply be watched, but to be talked about; a key characteristic of this reality TV sub-genre.
On the other end of the scale, One Born Every Minute, can be seen as the ‘quality’ end of the reality TV genre. It documents families in the birthing ward in a hospital in the UK, each about to experience the bringing of new life in one way or another. The show gives a distinctive insight into the birthing ward, including interviews with hospital staff as well as those going through the experience. A definite sense of authenticity is communicated, as well as a certain vibe that the show wants to do nothing more than share, but not detract, from the life-altering experience the subjects are going through. The show does perhaps seek to entertain, as any show would, but a different type of entertainment is sought; one that does not need manipulation to the degree of shows like The Moment of Truth or Big Brother, in which often producers will resort to the manipulation and exploitation of contestants. One Born Every Minute constantly holds a positive portrayal of this unique process, showing it in a light-hearted way. Episodes often circulate around the stages of the birthing process, ending in the arrival of a baby, by which time the audience is often overwhelmed by the special and heart-felt environment and process, of which the show does well to portray.
Considering the reality TV genre has such a wide-array of differing programs, defining its key factors becomes less about content but more about its recurring attempts to show the “real.” In programs of the genre, the “real” becomes a spectacle; to be watched, enjoyed, and entertained by. As Sofie Van Bauwel suggests, the “real” becomes a hyper-real realm where “authentic emotions, experiences, and pleases is constructed.” (2010, p. 22)
Ouellette, L & Murray, S 2009, ‘Introduction’, in Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, New York University Press, United States, viewed 28 December 2013, < http://books.google.com.au/books?id=4_W19oHGzZQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false >
Van Bauwel, S 2010, ‘A Short Introduction to Trans-Reality’, in Carpenter, N, & Van Bauwel, S, Trans-Reality Television: The Transgression of Reality, Genre, Politics, And Audience, Lexington Books, United Kingdom, viewed 28 December 2013, < http://books.google.com.au/books?id=4soMZSvQvgYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false >
Bell, CE, 2009, ‘American Idolatry: Celebrity, Commodity, and Reality Television’, Ph.D. JourMassComn thesis, University of Colorado.