This post is an extension of previous post TV; Can you put reality in television?.
Reality television is often caught up in attempting to represent the ‘real’ to varying degrees depending on the intention of the program. If the program seeks to be mere passive observers of an event, the claim the program makes to reality is much greater than a program that ‘interferes’ with reality. One Born Every Minute, for example, portrays an observer angle, taking the audience inside a birthing suite in a UK hospital. Interviews and subtitles are added in to create a more ‘full’ experience, but on the whole, the show is led by the main talents and nothing more. On the other hand, a show like Big Brother, in which contestants are locked in a luxury house to test their social skills, the producers constantly set the contestant tasks to complete, and contestants are constantly asked their thoughts of other housemates and of their experience. This style is hence one more based on ‘interfering’ and manipulating, and hence its claim to reality and the sense of realism it portrays is much smaller.
Directly affecting the perception of whether a reality program is of a higher quality or not is this varying claim to represent reality to greater or lower extents. Reality television, in its various forms, “tend(s) to be measured by viewers and television critics against an ideal (and vaguely formulated) conception of the ‘realistic’. Programmes are judged to be ‘good’ -i.e. well-constructed and entertaining – if they offer convincing ‘pictures of reality’.” (Biressi & Nunn 2005, p. 3) Hence the accurate portrayal of reality, either in this ‘observer’ style or similar, leans the program more towards being categorised as higher quality than those which involve ‘interfering’ with the immediacy of reality in their portrayal. This suggests viewers engage more, and have more respect, for reality television programs that aim to portray unmediated and untouched reality.
In their book Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn discuss the many wonders of reality television. They suggest the ‘reality’ inherent in most reality television programs is perhaps in part due to the television medium itself; “there is an assumption that television produces a ‘realistic’, ‘common sense’ and therefore recognisable and familiar view of the social world; of the family, relationships, personal trauma, class, ethnicity and gender.” (2005, p. 3) Television as a medium connects many viewers to a sense of community; of connectedness to the outside world, which, in many cases, is portrayed as unmediated, unedited events. Biressi and Nunn then go on to discuss the effect of reality television on this perception of everyday life depicted through television:
“Reality TV inevitably raises the ante on the expectations made of realist representation. With new scopic technologies that convey a sense of immediacy and intimacy and ‘unscripted’ material featuring ‘real’ people, reality TV lays claim to reveal social, psychological, political and historical truths and to depict the rhythms and structures of everyday life with the least recourse possible to dramatisation and artifice.”
It is clear that the effect reality television has on audiences is more than just light entertainment; reality television is watched to witness this sense of immediacy and intimacy that is outside our average everyday encounters yet displayed inside directly to us on a television. In their article Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity through Reality Television, Randle Rose and Stacy Wood explain further: “…the consumption of reality programming represents a sophisticated quest for authenticity within the traditionally fiction-orientated entertainment paradigm.” (2005, pp. 284) In this sense, viewers of reality television seek entertainment, but on a deeper level, also seek to connect with the program through its display of authenticity. The manipulation of this authenticity, though, does not go unnoticed. According to Rose and Wood, audiences of reality television programs “… revel in the ironic mixture of the factitious and the spontaneous.” (2005, p. 286) Audiences connect with the ‘real’ people of these reality television programs, but, according to Rose and Wood, acknowledge these people are placed in a very ‘unreal’ situation. Furthermore, their presence on television remains out of the ordinary – usually something that would not happen in everyday life – and hence “a paradox is revealed in which viewers negotiate the existence of both ‘people like me’ and storybook ‘characters.'” (Rose & Wood 2005, p. 290)
Television audiences are particularly complex, constantly watching for reasons other than to be entertained. Though often overlooked, this is certainly evident in reality television audiences. In a study by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, reality television audiences are suggested to watch certain reality television shows based on individual personality desires. Interestingly, Reiss and Wiltz found the study to suggest an average reality television viewer placed the motive for status above other desires: “the more reality TV shows a person liked, the more status-orientated was the person.” (2009, p. 373) Behind this was the basic motive of vengeance. This suggests a deeper level of desire in reality television viewers than merely to watch, or witness authenticity that they would otherwise be unable to see. Perhaps subconsciously, viewers with a value placed on status are drawn to the reality television genre; “the idea that these are “real” people gives psychological significance to the viewers’ perceptions of superiority.” (Reiss & Wiltz 2009, p. 373) The idea and basic premise of reality television is also important here; millions of people watching ordinary people gives the implication that ordinary people are important.
Reality television is generally associated with trashy, entertainment-only television – its audience much the same. However it is clear that reality television has vast capabilities to influence how the average audience reflects on everyday life through the production and displaying of ‘reality’. Reality television programs of different styles choose to represent this reality to varying degrees of accuracy and convincingness, and are then categorised by this as ‘quality’ or not. Audiences of this complex genre are also more complex than first meets the eye. Watching for a combination of the desire to witness authenticity, entertainment, or deeper desires such as status, these audiences, for the most part, remain just as complex as other television genre audiences.
Biressi, A & Nunn, H 2005, Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, Wallflower Press, Great Britain
Reiss, S & Wiltz, J 2004, ‘Why People Watch Reality TV’, Media Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 363-378.
Rose, RL & Wood, SL 2005, ‘ Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity through Reality Television,’ Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 284-296.